23 March 2010

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

“It’s a town that exists in the world based on the idea of it not existing in the world. It was created as a kind of no-frills bunker in which to live austerely, shun wrongdoers and kill some time, and joy before the Rapture. The idea is that if we can successfully deny ourselves the pleasures of this world, we’ll be first in line to enjoy the pleasures of the next world, forever.”

Thoughts and Reflections:
I enjoyed this novel very much. I enjoyed it from the very outset. The language and characters were immediately appealing. I appreciated how raw the situation seemed from the first sentence of the first page. I was most certainly frustrated with the characters at times and overwhelmingly angry at the church administration in this town. I found this to be a tale of a girl breaking ties (contemporary and historical; personal and familial) with a community, a community for which she has no affinity and which has no affinity for her. I was incredibly frustrated at the situations created by this church administration, especially regarding the protagonist and her family. Husband was made to choose between faith and family. Daughter was made to choose between independence and community. I am wholeheartedly against practices such as excommunication and shunning. I can see absolutely no point in them what so ever. Nomi, the protagonist, railed against this idea to bank everything on an idea of the eternal, completely denying the present reality. Moreover, she was entirely fed up with questioning every action and deciding whether she was sinning or not in each moment of every day. This was a community that was able, but unwilling to respond to a girl who openly displayed her need for help. I was frustrated with Nomi for not being assertive, for being rebellious, but not really knowing why, for hating her surroundings but doing nothing to changer her situation. Her digression into virtual insanity was heart breaking and frustrating. I just about threw the book at the wall when the head of church officially excommunicated his 16-year old niece and girl in need. I was overwhelmed with the final decision of the father regarding his daughter, recognising that his abandonment was a means of liberation. Ironically, the act of the church to excommunicate the protagonist was the very act that enabled her freedom.

This community embodies the dilemma of learning how to live and who to be. However, rather than aiding youths in this process, the community dictated, pressured, used fear, and shunned to push youths in a particular direction. Individualism was discouraged, yet what more does a youth want than to assert individuality? Moreover, rather than instilling a sense of life and hope in members of the community. Every aspect of life was restricted; purposes were determined and predetermined, thus resulting in an overwhelmingly bleak future for someone like the protagonist. The novel depicts this undercurrent of anger and discontent behind a happy façade. Part of me what stunned that everyone was willing to go along with such a ridiculous game, but I suppose that is what a fear of eternally burning in hell can do to people.

I certainly wondered how much of this story was autobiographical, or at least be an expression of the authors frustration with the Mennonite faith. I understand that the town described in the novel is, in fact, Steinbach, Manitoba, which is just east of Winnipeg, Manitoba and the hometown of Miriam Toews. This book certainly caused a stir in Canada, especially among Mennonite communities. I’d say a book causing such a stir is certainly worth a read, if only to find out what all the fuss is about. Happily, the book was an interesting read on top of being controversial. All in all, I would certainly recommend this book. Although, I would also suggest keeping in mind that not all Mennonite communities are like the one in the book, nor do all people have such adverse reactions to such communities as Nomi expresses.

Points of Interest:
Excommunication: 1) An ecclesiastical censure depriving a person of the rights of church membership, and 2) exclusion from fellowship in a group or community.

Shunning: the act of deliberately avoiding association with, and habitually keeping away from an individual or group. It is a sanction against association often associated with religious groups and other tightly-knit organizations and communities. Targets of shunning can include, but are not limited to apostates, whistleblowers, dissidents, people classified as "sinners" or "traitors" and other people who defy or who fail to comply with the standards established by the shunning groups.

Mennonites: a group of Christian Anabaptist denominations named after the Frisian Menno Simons (1496–1561), who, through his writings, articulated and thereby formalized the teachings of earlier Swiss founders. The teachings of the Mennonites were founded on their belief in both the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ, which they held to with great conviction despite persecution by the various Roman Catholic and Protestant states.

Low German: any of the regional language varieties of the West Germanic languages spoken mainly in northern Germany and the eastern part of the Netherlands. “Low” refers to the flat plains and coastal area of the northern European lowlands, contrasted with the mountainous areas of central and southern Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, where High German is spoken.

Things I Loved About This Book:
1)I’m quite a fan of counter-cultural activity and youthful rebellion against the status quo, so naturally, this aspect of the novel was appreciated

2)The descriptions of the prairies. Having lived on the Canadian prairies, these descriptions were fondly received

3)The controversy created from this novel and the courage of the author to breach such topics


julienne said...

Thanks for the breakdown, Andrea--I like the organized way you tackled this book. I haven't read it but you've made a good case for it.

Anonymous said...

I read it a few years ago, and quickly realized I am far too close to the subject matter to enjoy the book, let alone be objective. Also, the descent into crazy at the end was a nail in the coffin for me. Sorry, but I do love Miriam Toews' other fiction. Also, she's my mom's cousin, so you know we're practically like sisters :)