A Complicated Kindness

A Complicated Kindness

A Novel

Book - 2004
Average Rating:
Rate this:
Random House, Inc.
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

Publisher: Toronto : A.A. Knopf Canada, c2004
ISBN: 9780676976120
Branch Call Number: FIC Toews
Characteristics: 246 p.


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Nov 25, 2019

This book is beautifully crafted and beautifully written and yet it's full of jarring incidents and some characters. However, I think it is also one of the most powerful coming of age stories because the author manages to give the reader the sense that you, yourself, are living in the mind of a teenager. That level of skill and creativity left me feeling I had a real sense of the protagonist.

May 05, 2019

While reading this book I was unsure whether I was enjoying it nor whether I liked any of the characters (or even if I was supposed to like any of them). A couple weeks after finishing the book, I am still unsure about it. I will at least one more book by this author and see how it goes.

Apr 04, 2019

I found this a depressing novel of a confused and discouraged 16 yr old Mennonite girl whose family is divided by their religion. Nomi Nickle tells her story in vernacular of her upbringing.

Jan 02, 2019

Nomi is way too hilarious. I found the writing style to be unique and the ending was indeed bittersweet. Here are some quotes I liked. Spoilers ahead!

"Nomi, he said, you just need to wake up to the fact that other people need to know where you're going. But there's nobody behind me, I told him. And he said, reassuringly, that someday there may be." (75)

"I wondered if it was possible to donate my body to science before I was actually dead. I wondered if a disease were to be named after me what the symptoms would be." (75)

"And then she burned her diary in this ceremony that indicated the end of her little-girl period and threw the ashes into the Rat River, a properly embittered woman." (96)

"I went into the bathroom, puked, passed out in my bed, and briefly died, until the sun rose once again reminding me of renewed hope and promise and other abiding things. I needed to find something large and dark to put in my window or I would slowly die of fatigue." (200)

Nov 07, 2018

Toews paints for us a picture of life in a strict Mennonite community for a spirited teenage girl, called Nomi. It’s a place where every action is tightly controlled by the church leader, Nomi’s uncle, The Mouth. Nomi’s smart and irreverent. She wants to know who where what and why. Her questioning throughout the novel never yields any answers, only more questions. I found the whole thing tiresome and felt as frustrated as Nomi by the circumstances of her life. I didn’t finish the book. I couldn’t find the patience to wade through 200 more pages of rambling text. Perhaps if I had, I would have understood better what Toews was aiming for. This book was definitely not for me.

darelann May 11, 2018

A Complicated Kindness tells the heartbreakingly funny story of Nomi Nickel coming of age in a small Mennonite town in southern Manitoba. Miriam Toews depicts teenage angst and exasperation with such humour and authenticity that you'll be laughing and crying at the same time. A Complicated Kindness won the Governor’s General Literary Award when it was published in 2004 and Canada reads in 2006. It is still a popular and relevant read for 2018.

Mar 06, 2017

This is one of my very favourite books and my favourite Miriam Toews book. Such an interesting story of growing up in a truly bizarre setting, and how this affects a young mind and a family. The title is just excellent for this book, describing the complicated kindness of the people in the narrator's town. Even more compelling is that it is semi-autobiographical. A book that made me laugh and cry, sometimes on the same page, through finding humour in the darkest moments - Toewes's finest talent. Recommended if you liked Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

Feb 18, 2017

It is hard to write stream of consciousness book well, but Toews does. 16-year-old Nomi is lost but not just in the "typical teenager" lost sort of way. Two of the most important figures in her life have left her: her older sister and her mother. To top that all off, she lives in a conservative Mennonite town in Canada. She is not only struggling to understand the world around her as a typical teenager would but as a teenager going through a huge family crisis that leaves her questioning life, love, family, and what to do with herself.

The book is laugh-out-loud funny with Nomi's dry sense of humor and also tragically sad in its reflection of life and loss.

I feel it is thought provoking, introspective, and worth reading. I recommend this book to others.

Jan 30, 2017

It is hard to pinpoint why this book left me feeling 'eh', kind of flat. There were clever lines, funny moments and poignant scenes. For the most part, I found the juxtaposition of past and present vaguely annoying and slightly confusing, never quite sure if we were in a past or present moment. I can see why it would appeal to some, but I would not be quick to recommend it to many readers.

AmberKlassen May 07, 2015

This novel has a lot of truths in it, but is merely the depiction of an adolescent who did not like her life and took no control or responsibility for her own actions.

Disappointed because there is not much to read about this unique culture/religion in Canada.

The star rating is for personal reference.

View All Comments


Add Notices
Jul 21, 2010

Coarse Language: This title contains Coarse Language.

Age Suitability

Add Age Suitability

There are no age suitabilities for this title yet.


Add a Summary

There are no summaries for this title yet.


Add a Quote

There are no quotes for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at IPL

To Top