One's reaction to Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness will largely hinge on three things -- how one feels about negative portrayals of religion, how one feels about a somewhat sarcastic narrative voice and how one feels about ambiguous endings. I certainly don't mind the first, but have mixed feelings about the second. Usually too much of a good thing is still too much. However, I can understand why readers are drawn to it. Nomi, the main character, longs to get out of her small town, which is completely dominated by Mennonites. She can't envision any way to do so, even though her mother and older sister both left, so she spends her last year of freedom (before the inevitable job at the chicken slaughterhouse) rebelling at school and generally being a slacker. She does sound a fair bit like Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye or even a bit like Daria from MTV (though I think Daria was written as a smarter character). But again, this voice is the main thing the book has going for it, and when you really look at these refusniks, their basic answer to not giving in to The Man is to drop out of society and refuse to work, refuse to go to school, refuse to participate in social activities (other than partaking in drugs), etc. My general feeling is that we are all implicated in society and bound to do things that we don't really want to do, but opting out is really an irresponsible, fairly selfish reaction to adult responsibilities. Needless to say, I don't have a lot of patience for people who hold this view. I didn't read Catcher in the Rye when I was younger, and I can pretty much guarantee I won't like it now. That said, it's fairly short, and I'll probably try to squeeze it in one of these days.
In the case of this novel, my general impatience for and with drop outs (literary or otherwise) is tempered by the fact that the adults around her are more or less in a cult, to the point that the religious leader of the community (Nomi's uncle) can expel troublesome members and then have the whole town shun them. Most people undergoing this treatment opt to leave town, but a few stuck it out, including the local drug dealer.* Nomi makes several scathing comments along the way about Mennonites who are hypocritical, whereas she is fairly open about not buying into the tenets of the religion, though she does occasionally try to fit in to make things easier for her father, who is a true believer. The novel basically hinges on Nomi's love for her father (and unwillingness to abandon him) and her longing for her mother, who left town a few years before the novel begins.
I knew a bit about Toews's upbringing, and in fact she grew up in a small religious community (Steinbach, Manitoba), so in that sense she knows very much about these towns and their hypocrises. I hadn't been aware that her father committed suicide and then her sister 12 years later (though several years after the publication of A Complicated Kindness). While I probably won't be reading a lot more Toews, I do expect to eventually read her most recent novel (All My Puny Sorrows) which is inspired by the last years of her sister's life. In any event, her personal experience makes it clear that some Mennonites do commit suicide, even though it is of course against the tenets of their faith (which to be fair, seem to focus almost entirely on how degraded the material world is (and that life is meant to be suffering) and how much better things will be in heaven). In a roundabout way, this brings me to my issues with the book, and particularly the ending. There seems to be a lot of emotional truth in the novel (powered by her feelings over her father's suicide) but key aspects of the plot itself doesn't make any sense to me. Also, there is radical uncertainty as to what actually happened, which is something I generally don't like as a reader. But to discuss this, I'll need to go into SPOILER mode.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
It may be a bit of a stretch, but the way the mysteries were presented bit by bit (peeling away the onion layers) reminded me just a bit of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, though there most of the details were revealed (and the "mystery" solved) by midway through that book, and the book's unsatisfactory ending had other causes. While we find the main motivation behind her mother's disappearance, the book resolutely refuses to confirm whether she committed suicide (though it is strongly hinted that she did**) or has simply stayed away from the town to spare her husband the agony of choosing between her (since she has been excommunicated and must be shunned) and his faith. What is harder to swallow is that the book sets up two more open-ended mysteries. It is simply never settled what happened to Nomi's older sister. She ran off with an older boyfriend and then never gets back in touch at all. Are we to assume that he killed her? That seems not just particularly morbid but somewhat undermines what we know about her character (she was level-headed enough to reject Mennonite teachings and wanted to get out of town but then picked up a psychopath for a boyfriend?).
An even bigger problem I have is how Nomi's father disappears at the end of the novel, leaving her a long note that he knows the only way she will leave town is if he leaves first, but then in a few years down the road, he'll rejoin her. At first glance, this seems at least sort of plausible (leading some critics to write about his "heroic sacrifice"), but falls apart fairly quickly. She is the one that was ex-communicated, so the odds of her being able to wrap up his affairs, selling the house, etc., seem slim indeed. Why wouldn't they just go somewhere else together? That would be far more straight-forward. Instead, the only explanation that makes sense is that he took the cowardly way out and, squeezed by his constricting, terrible faith that asked him to reject his daughters and his wife, killed himself. So he is just one more adult who leaves Nomi in the lurch and compounds this by lying to her. As if she won't be able to figure this out in a few years after he never turns up again.
Anyway, the big, big reveal at the end of the book is that Nomi uncovers evidence that her mother and her teacher, Mr. Quiring, had an affair. He pressured her to continue and, when she declined, set in motion the rumours that she was unchaste, which in turn led to her ex-communication. So in that context, with the heavy guilt and everything, it certainly makes it much more likely that Nomi's mother killed herself. But it makes no kind of sense that Nomi's mother would cheat with Mr. Quiring in the first place, even if completely distraught over her older daughter leaving town. At least based on Nomi's portrayal of her mother and how she adored her father, I can't make that piece fit. Of course, Nomi may be wrong on that account, but then so much of the rest of the novel falls apart. Thus, I wasn't very happy with the way the novel was constructed, since it all hinges on a terrible secret that makes no sense, as well as sacrifices that are counter-productive. Everyone justifies their actions as helping her (though more likely they are simply lying about what they are up to before they go kill themselves) but in the end, Nomi is abandoned by everyone and is left to fend for herself, so she is amply justified in not trusting adults and feeling that her world is absurd and even the good moments were all built on lies. So definitely a downer of a book when you really think about it. A few too many funny moments to join my bleakest book list, but still not a feel-good story on any level.
* The scene of Nomi and her boyfriend trying to score dope from this drug dealer is quite hilarious and one of the few bits that really worked for me in this novel.
** Nomi mentions several times that she is worried that her mother didn't simply leave the town because she didn't take her passport with her, though of course one can still travel pretty far within Canada itself.