The second choice for my fledgling book club, reading Miriam Toews A Complicated Kindness was, for me, both a trip back in time and an other-world experience. Having grown up in a small town with small town people, and in a conservative Christian family with mostly conservative Christian friends, Toews world of East Village - a (not very) fictional village in Manitoba - both resonated and intrigued me.
Before I remembered that we're not suppose to read other reviews before our book club discussion, I read just one line from the Quill and Quire review that said "Reading A Complicated Kindness is like waking up at a crazy Bible camp." Having attend more than my share of Bible camp, and having loved every minute of it - even the part I couldn't quite articulate or integrate - I can say "yep, that's about right."
Naomi (Nomi) Nickel has all the familiar angst of an awkward younger sister (her big sister Tash's perfume was Love's Baby Soft - I haven't thought of that smell since 1984). All the internal drama of a virgin with a boyfriend. All the unreliability of an upset teenage narrator left to interpret life with little input from the adults in her life. All the complicated love of a family who loves deeply but not well. It's every woman's story, and she makes it all her own.
Part of what makes this story so uncanny is Toews' dance with language. The langauge of a skilled writer mixes that of an angry teenage narrator, an anachronistic father, and a village where 'the unwritten language of your people' often intermingles. Add in some good-ol' Bible thumping straight out of the King James, and East Village is a word-lover's paradise.
Narrator Nomi, an intelligent if not all that together girl, uses teenage language to express deep human emotion and experience that is simultaneously laugh out loud funny and heart-breaking. One sentence that particularly stuck with me: "It's raining questions around here. A person could drown in them."
Most of the story is of Nomi treading water in that sea of questions.
I just found out that Miriam Toews has written five other books. I hope to find them all in time for my holidays that start next week.
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NOT THE REVIEW PART OF THE POST:
Tonight was also my first time hosting the group and making dinner for everyone, and I went full-Mennonite. Or at least as full-Mennonite as someone who has only passing experience with strict Mennonites can get. We have agreed that our dinners will always be gluten-free (thanks ladies!) but my menu tonight would have been naturally gluten-free anyway:
- home-made coleslaw
- oven-roasted new potatoes
- grilled Mennonite sausage (of course!)
- bbq roasted chicken
- steeped, honey-sweetened iced tea
- gluten-free 1 2 3 4 cake cupcakes (based on this recipe from wikibooks, using gluten-free flour)
It was the kind of meal not many of us eat regularly - pretty meat heavy, and not a cooked veg in sight (I don't think that's very Mennonite - I just forgot), but was a lot of fun to share. There would have been a fight over the Mennonite sausages if we hadn't cut them into thirds. And the conversation was generous, vulnerable, fun and free - and honestly not all that focused on the book after the first few minutes.
I had dog-eared a question Nomi asks somewhere along the way 'If you were a disease, what would you be called and what would your symptoms be?" I had thought to ask the ladies of the club for their responses, but we were busy just enjoying each other's company.
I LOVE my new book club!