A Complicated Kindness

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A Complicated Kindness

by Miriam Toews

Knopf Canada | May 1, 2007 | Trade Paperback

A Complicated Kindness is rated 3.25 out of 5 by 16.
Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel longs to hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull in New York City’s East Village. Instead she’s trapped in East Village, Manitoba, a small town whose population is Mennonite: “the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.” East Village is a town with no train and no bar whose job prospects consist of slaughtering chickens at the Happy Family Farms abattoir or churning butter for tourists at the pioneer village. Ministered with an iron fist by Nomi’s uncle Hans, a.k.a. The Mouth of Darkness, East Village is a town that’s tall on rules and short on fun: no dancing, drinking, rock ’n’ roll, recreational sex, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities or staying up past nine o’clock.

As the novel begins, Nomi struggles to cope with the back-to-back departures three years earlier of Tash, her beautiful and mouthy sister, and Trudie, her warm and spirited mother. She lives with her father, Ray, a sweet yet hapless schoolteacher whose love is unconditional but whose parenting skills amount to benign neglect. Father and daughter deal with their losses in very different ways. Ray, a committed elder of the church, seeks to create an artificial sense of order by reorganizing the city dump late at night. Nomi, on the other hand, favours chaos as she tries to blunt her pain through “drugs and imagination.” Together they live in a limbo of unanswered questions.

Nomi’s first person narrative shifts effortlessly between the present and the past. Within the present, Nomi goes through the motions of finishing high school while flagrantly rebelling against Mennonite tradition. She hangs out on Suicide Hill, hooks up with a boy named Travis, goes on the Pill, wanders around town, skips class and cranks Led Zeppelin. But the past is never far from her mind as she remembers happy times with her mother and sister — as well as the painful events that led them to flee town. Throughout, in a voice both defiant and vulnerable, she offers hilarious and heartbreaking reflections on life, death, family, faith and love.

Eventually Nomi’s grief — and a growing sense of hypocrisy — cause her to spiral ever downward to a climax that seems at once startling and inevitable. But even when one more loss is heaped on her piles of losses, Nomi maintains hope and finds the imagination and willingness to envision what lies beyond.

Few novels in recent years have generated as much excitement as A Complicated Kindness. Winner of the Governor General’s Award and a Giller Prize Finalist, Miriam Toews’s third novel has earned both critical acclaim and a long and steady position on our national bestseller lists. In the Globe and Mail, author Bill Richardson writes the following: “There is so much that’s accomplished and fine. The momentum of the narrative, the quality of the storytelling, the startling images, the brilliant rendering of a time and place, the observant, cataloguing eye of the writer, her great grace. But if I had to name Miriam Toews’s crowning achievement, it would be the creation of Nomi Nickel, who deserves to take her place beside Daisy Goodwill Flett, Pi Patel and Hagar Shipley as a brilliantly realized character for whom the reader comes to care, okay, comes to love.”


This town is so severe. And silent. It makes me crazy, the silence. I wonder if a person can die from it. The town office building has a giant filing cabinet full of death certificates that say choked to death on his own anger or suffocated from unexpressed feelings of unhappiness. Silentium. People here just can’t wait to die, it seems. It’s the main event. The only reason we’re not all snuffed at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime. My guidance counsellor has suggested to me that I change my attitude about this place and learn to love it. But I do, I told her. Oh, that’s rich, she said. That’s rich. . .

We’re Mennonites. After Dukhobors who show up naked in court we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland, and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit. Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking , temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock’n’roll, having sex for fun, swimming, makeup, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.
—from A Complicated Kindness


From the Hardcover edition.

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 256 pages, 7.99 × 5.18 × 0.84 in

Published: May 1, 2007

Publisher: Knopf Canada

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0676978568

ISBN - 13: 9780676978568

Found in: Fiction and Literature

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Reviews

Rated 2 out of 5 by from Wasn't Interesting There may be some readers who have enjoyed this book, but I was not one of them. I can tell it's a great book but not of my taste as it gave me no interest or motivation to read. Not much of a book worm, but what I can say is if you're Christian, or if you lived in a society where you had to live by rules or be obedient to certain things; you can relate to this novel. The wording is nice, the story is good. Overall I did not enjoy it, but it's a great story.
Date published: 2015-04-08
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Gave up on it twice I tried reading it twice and gave up each time. However, since I had bought (without much thought) i decided to give it one more go so as not to waste money. I seriously do not get what's so great about this book. There was hardly a storyline and absolutely nothing that would want you to continue reading. I fell asleep even when I wasn't tired. What a waste of time.
Date published: 2012-04-29
Rated 1 out of 5 by from DIdn't get the hype.... I had to read this book for a class about adolescents. A lot of people really seemed to enjoy this book, but I found it really hard to get into and finish. This book is about a Mennonite village and focuses on one particular family who live in it. The main character Nomi is the focus of the novel. We view the world through her eyes. Information is slowly revealed as the book continues about what happened to her sister, Natasha, and her mother, Trudie. She lives with her father, Ray, who is a bit of an odd character himself. We see this struggle within Nomi to be herself while at the same time following the ways of her Mennonite village. There is nothing spectacular about this book; rather it has an everyday kind of feel to it. I think you have to think like Nomi to really understand the book and get into it. I could not relate to her character and therefore found it really hard to get anything of substance out of this novel. The ending is not really an ending (which is something that drives me crazy!), which I found really frustrating. On the plus side, it won the Governor General's Award and it is truly Canadian. Give it a try.
Date published: 2011-12-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Great Book, a Disappointing Conclusion The main character in this book is hilarious while tragic. Excellent writing for the bulk of the novel, you are really captured by Nomi's sad, lost life. The ending, however, leaves something to be desired - same "but wait, this isn't the end, right?" feeling I had reading The Flying Troutmans, also by Towes.
Date published: 2011-06-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Love Toews' humor! Toews' writing never disappoints, her dry wit, and timing are pitch perfect, her ability to make me laugh in situations or on topics that I wouldn't normally find funny is a testament to just how talented a writer she is! I adore her dysfunctional characters, and Nomi Nickel is no exception! A MUST read!
Date published: 2011-03-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing! Read this book! No, seriously, go...NOW! I loved it! It was hard to understand at first, but it was very enjoyable and Nomi's character is easy to relate to. I was completely immersed in the storyline and plot and couldn't put the book down! Granted, I did have to read this for school, but I enjoyed it nonetheless!
Date published: 2009-12-15
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disliked I honestly tried reading this book. Actually read up until page 191 (I think). The entire time I had no idea what was going on. I felt like I was back in highschool praying that there was a "Coles Notes/Cliffs Notes" for this book. I ended up returning it. On the back cover there's a review saying that it's funny, but, it's not funny at all. I just didn't get it!
Date published: 2009-11-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Watch the grass grow - it will go faster and be more exciting I was given this book by a friend who didn't say too much about it. Now I know why. The description on the jacket sounded intriguing, so I thought why not? I try to read more books by Canadian authors anyway. I found the narrative haphazard and annoying. I know the protaganist is a 16 year old girl who is confused and lost, but after a while, the reader gets lost too. I don't know how many times I asked myself "Where is this going?" At the conclusion, you're thinking, "This is what I was waiting for?" The only saving grace was that it was slightly less than 250 pages, so I didn't waste too much time on it. Why was this a Giller prize nominee?!
Date published: 2009-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An amazing novel Nomi is just an average sixteen year old girl living in a small town, the only thing different is she's a mennonite. Her mother and sister both left three years before this novel takes place. Her sister left with her boyfriend and her mom was ex-communicated. Yes, they live in a town that does that. Nomi once was very devoted to her religion, but at sixteen she is questioning it and has become a stoner. Things she she would never do. Throughout the novel, Nomi tries to figure out where her mother and sister could have went upon leaving. She tries to come up with different scenerios on why they left, because she had been kept in the dark all those years ago. This novel is different than any I have read before. I have never read a book where a mennonite girl is narrating. As a side notw, the town I live in is home to many mennonites and it was interesting to read the authors take on their lives. Not a disappointing read at all.
Date published: 2009-06-28
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Awful This is possibly one of the worse books I have ever read considering the hype that was made about it. The characters were flat and not particularly likable. The story went nowhere and just dragged on and on. Highly disappointing.
Date published: 2009-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Definitely a difficult one to put down A Complicated Kindness was a story that was written purposely almost to leave you feeling a bit depressed about the state of the main character/narrarator Nomi, a girl living in a mennonite society that shares none of the same beliefs or values with the rest of her mennonite community. She feels extremely trapped and isolated in her own town, and is almost polar opposites with everyone she knows. Her most fulfilling dream would be to go and live in a crowded city like New York City. Nomi's older sister Tash, and her mother Trudie left when she was 13 - they felt the same way as Nomi, thus, leaving Nomi with her father Ray. This novel was written very well, with a unique style, much symbolism incorporated, yet with all the deepness involved, it still has a very witty and funny type of dark humour that is easily recognizable within the novel. A quick read, but not an easy one.
Date published: 2009-03-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Read This book definitely had a unique writing style. Follow the adventures of a troubled Mennonite teenage girl, living in a Mennonite village, who seems to have given up hope on life, but not her belief in God. After being abandoned by half of her family (her mom and her sister), she ridicules her religion, but still believes in heaven and hell and is often anxious over her end result in life.
Date published: 2009-03-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Compulsive, but... This novel offers a sideways glimpse into the life of a Canadian Mennonite girl in the 70s, and her desperation and angst over her own life. While most of the book is compulsive reading, addictive and entrancing, as Nomi's life starts to unravel, so does the plot. Many things ongoing within the novel are left unexplained, and by the end, when a major plot point is revealed, the complete lack of elaboration into it is frustrating and left me completely off-kilter and unsure of my feelings of the book. I think it's worth a read, for what it is, but proceed with the warning that there will be holes left in the plot when you're finished.
Date published: 2008-12-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from read all of Miriams books I know this book is a novel however the characters and place are very real and true. I also grew up in a sheltered Mennonite community and this book made me laugh until I cried. Miriam wirtes so great that you smell the summer air and feel like you are walking down the streets of this town. I have all of Miriams books and am so excited that a new one is coming this fall called The Flying Troutmans.
Date published: 2008-08-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A truly complicated kindness This is the kind of book that you will either love or hate. I loved it. It expresses perfectly the feeling of hating something but at the same time being unable to let it go. Coming from a much more progressive, yet still Mennonite background I could identify with many of the oppressive qualities of a small Mennonite town. On the other hand, nothing I ever experienced came remotely close to what the protagonist experiences. So, in all fairness, I don't think the reader comes away with a sense of what it is like to be a typical Mennonite. Instead, what makes this book good is that it perfectly describes a situation where you desperately want to leave, but you just can't find a way. it could be a job, a relationship, an addiction, whatever. So much of the imagery in the book revolves around that theme. The oppressive odor of the chicken barn, the killing of chickens, the harsh, mean, oppressive religion. It describes, in fact, the position that many people find themselves in. I think that's why it has found such a broad readership.
Date published: 2008-05-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Beautifully Brilliant A Complicated Kindness is a beautifully sad story. Nomi goes through so much in her life and she’s only 16. I would never have though that a novel about a Mennonite girl could be so captivating. Miriam Toews is brilliant. Nomi’s story is so emotional, so tangible; it breaks my heart a little. The emotions reached out and grabbed me. The only way to make them let go was to put the book down. Then, of course, you are left with the longing of wanting to know what happens to Nomi. It is a struggle between love, faith and freedom.
Date published: 2008-01-17

– More About This Product –

A Complicated Kindness

by Miriam Toews

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 256 pages, 7.99 × 5.18 × 0.84 in

Published: May 1, 2007

Publisher: Knopf Canada

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0676978568

ISBN - 13: 9780676978568

Read from the Book

One I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things interesting. Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing. Ray and I get up in the morning and move through our various activities until it’s time to go to bed. Every single night around ten o’clock Ray tells me that he’s hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he’ll stop in the front hallway and place notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day. We enjoy staring at the Northern Lights together. I told him, verbatim, what Mr. Quiring told us in class. About how those lights work. He thought Mr. Quiring had some interesting points. He’s always been mildly interested in Mr. Quiring’s opinions, probably because he’s also a teacher. I have assignments to complete. That’s the word, complete . I’ve got a problem with endings. Mr. Quiring has told me that essays and stories generally come, organically, to a preordained ending that is quite out of the writer’s control. He says we will know it when it happens, the ending. I don’t know about that. I feel that there are so many to choose from. I’m already anticipating failure. That much I’ve learned to do. But then what the hell will it matter to me while I’m snapping tiny necks and chu
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From the Publisher

Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel longs to hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull in New York City’s East Village. Instead she’s trapped in East Village, Manitoba, a small town whose population is Mennonite: “the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.” East Village is a town with no train and no bar whose job prospects consist of slaughtering chickens at the Happy Family Farms abattoir or churning butter for tourists at the pioneer village. Ministered with an iron fist by Nomi’s uncle Hans, a.k.a. The Mouth of Darkness, East Village is a town that’s tall on rules and short on fun: no dancing, drinking, rock ’n’ roll, recreational sex, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities or staying up past nine o’clock.

As the novel begins, Nomi struggles to cope with the back-to-back departures three years earlier of Tash, her beautiful and mouthy sister, and Trudie, her warm and spirited mother. She lives with her father, Ray, a sweet yet hapless schoolteacher whose love is unconditional but whose parenting skills amount to benign neglect. Father and daughter deal with their losses in very different ways. Ray, a committed elder of the church, seeks to create an artificial sense of order by reorganizing the city dump late at night. Nomi, on the other hand, favours chaos as she tries to blunt her pain through “drugs and imagination.” Together they live in a limbo of unanswered questions.

Nomi’s first person narrative shifts effortlessly between the present and the past. Within the present, Nomi goes through the motions of finishing high school while flagrantly rebelling against Mennonite tradition. She hangs out on Suicide Hill, hooks up with a boy named Travis, goes on the Pill, wanders around town, skips class and cranks Led Zeppelin. But the past is never far from her mind as she remembers happy times with her mother and sister — as well as the painful events that led them to flee town. Throughout, in a voice both defiant and vulnerable, she offers hilarious and heartbreaking reflections on life, death, family, faith and love.

Eventually Nomi’s grief — and a growing sense of hypocrisy — cause her to spiral ever downward to a climax that seems at once startling and inevitable. But even when one more loss is heaped on her piles of losses, Nomi maintains hope and finds the imagination and willingness to envision what lies beyond.

Few novels in recent years have generated as much excitement as A Complicated Kindness. Winner of the Governor General’s Award and a Giller Prize Finalist, Miriam Toews’s third novel has earned both critical acclaim and a long and steady position on our national bestseller lists. In the Globe and Mail, author Bill Richardson writes the following: “There is so much that’s accomplished and fine. The momentum of the narrative, the quality of the storytelling, the startling images, the brilliant rendering of a time and place, the observant, cataloguing eye of the writer, her great grace. But if I had to name Miriam Toews’s crowning achievement, it would be the creation of Nomi Nickel, who deserves to take her place beside Daisy Goodwill Flett, Pi Patel and Hagar Shipley as a brilliantly realized character for whom the reader comes to care, okay, comes to love.”


This town is so severe. And silent. It makes me crazy, the silence. I wonder if a person can die from it. The town office building has a giant filing cabinet full of death certificates that say choked to death on his own anger or suffocated from unexpressed feelings of unhappiness. Silentium. People here just can’t wait to die, it seems. It’s the main event. The only reason we’re not all snuffed at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime. My guidance counsellor has suggested to me that I change my attitude about this place and learn to love it. But I do, I told her. Oh, that’s rich, she said. That’s rich. . .

We’re Mennonites. After Dukhobors who show up naked in court we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland, and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit. Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking , temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock’n’roll, having sex for fun, swimming, makeup, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.
—from A Complicated Kindness


From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Miriam Toews (pronounced tâves) was born in 1964 in the small Mennonite town of Steinbach, Manitoba. She left Steinbach at 18, living in Montreal and London and touring Europe before coming back to Manitoba, where she earned her B.A. in film studies at the University of Manitoba. Later she packed up with her children and partner and moved to Halifax to attend the University of King’s College, where she received her bachelor’s degree in journalism. Upon returning to Winnipeg with her family in 1991, she freelanced at the CBC, making radio documentaries. When her youngest daughter started nursery school, Toews decided it was time to try writing a novel. Miriam Toews’s first novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck , was published in 1996; it was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and won the John Hirsch Award. Published two years later, her second novel, A Boy of Good Breeding , won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. She is also the author of Swing Low: A Life , a memoir of her father who committed suicide in 1998 after a lifelong struggle with manic depression. Swing Low won both the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award and the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction. Toews has written for the CBC, This American Life (on National Public Radio), Saturday Night , Geist , Canadian Geographic , Open Letters and The New York Times Magazine , and has won the National Magazine Award Gold Medal for Humour. Toews’s thi
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Editorial Reviews

"Miriam Toews, the award winning Canadian author, embodies Nomi''s voice with such an authentic and manic charm that it''s hard not to fall in love with her... A Complicated Kindness captures the struggles of a family and its individuals in a fresh, wondrous style. Despite this complexity of family tensions, much of A Complicated Kindness is pleasantly plotless. The looseness of Nomi''s worldview, the sometimes blurry nonfocus of it, the unexpected sideways humor, make this book the beautiful and bitter little masterpiece it is." — The Believer “Poignant....Bold, tender and intelligent, this is a clear-eyed exploration of belief and belonging, and the irresistible urge to escape both.” — Publishers Weekly “Wise, edgy, unforgettable, the heroine of Miriam Toews’s knockout novel is Canada’s next classic.” — Globe and Mail Books section cover “ A Complicated Kindness is just that: funny and strange, spellbinding and heartbreaking, this novel is a complicated kindness from a terrifically talented writer.” —Gail Anderson-Dargatz “Why the compulsion to laugh so often and so heartily when reading A Complicated Kindness ? That''s the book''s mystery and its miracle. Has any of our novelists ever married, so brilliantly, the funny — and I mean posture-damaging, shoulder-heaving, threaten- the- grip- of- gravity- on- recently- ingested- food brand of funny — and the desperately sad ̵
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Bookclub Guide

1. Nomi frequently interrupts her narrative to comment on word choice — both her own and that of others. Unreal, party, groovy, two-wheeler, keel, blouse and future are a few examples. What does language represent to Nomi? In what way is her fascination with words informed by her Mennonite upbringing?

2. Nomi describes herself and Ray as “two mental patients just getting through another day.” The novel contains many other references to insanity. What elements of a rigidly interpreted Mennonite religion would you say are not conducive to robust mental health?

3. Mr. Quiring appears on the first page of the book then plays a seemingly minor role until the last chapter. How would you describe his presence in the novel — both in terms of the story itself and how the story is told? What does Nomi mean when she says: “You provided my family with an ending”?

4. Nomi has been described as a “latter-day Holden Caulfield.” What aspects of A Complicated Kindness make it a coming-of-age story that resonates with readers regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds?

5. Of the bloodstain on her wall, Nomi writes: “…every time I looked at it I was reminded that I was, at that very moment, not bleeding from my face. And those are powerful words of hope, really.” What role does hope play in the novel? How does each member of the Nickel family experience hope?

6. What is the significance of the book’s title? Would you describe the departures of Trudi and Ray as acts of “a complicated kindness”? What other scenes reveal this quality at play?

7. How would you characterize Nomi’s style of humour? What function does it serve for her? What passages stand out for you as especially funny?

8. Discuss the symbolic significance of the following images: the ugly black dresses “dancing wildly in the wind;” Trudie’s passport in the drawer; the graffiti on passing trains.

9. What is Nomi’s vision of an ideal family? How do her views change over the course of the book?

10. It seems that the people of East Village are forced to live a contradiction: the tangible world is false; the hereafter is real. How does Nomi ultimately come to terms with this contradiction? Consider, for instance, her “new religion” as she describes it in Chapter 24.