Barbara Taylor writes: Nomi Nickel, the 16-year-old narrator of Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness, is one of the damned. Abandoned by her family, betrayed by her boyfriend, shunned by her community, she sits alone in an empty house, dreaming of lost happiness. This is the unpropitious end-scene from which Toews, winner of the 2004 Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award, unspools a blackly comedic tale of teenage life in East Village, a one-church Mennonite town in southern Manitoba where pastors rule and apostates receive no quarter. Modern Mennonism, like most Protestant confessions, is sharply divided between hardcore traditionalists and liberal modernisers – although to describe any brand of Mennonism as ‘liberal’ is pushing it. Toews describes her own background as progressive Mennonism, but A Complicated Kindness is a novel about zealotry, about bigotry and intolerance dressed up as religious conviction. The mentality it describes is not universal in Mennonism, nor confined to it. In an age of holy war, Toews’s protagonists have plenty of spiritual cousins.
Reviewed by the LRB