- A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
Faber, 246 pp, £7.99, June 2005, ISBN 0 571 22400 8
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.
We’re Mennonites . . . the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager . . . 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, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.
Menno Simons was a Dutch heretic, the spiritual leader of a North European Anabaptist faction that emerged from the Münsterite rebellion of the 1530s. Although less insurrectionist than its antecedents, Reformation Mennonism was a sternly dissentient creed, loathed by Protestant power-brokers, but its puritan radicalism soon eroded into defensive conservatism. 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.
Mennonites began arriving in North America in the 17th century, with big migratory waves in the late 19th century and again after the First World War, as Prussian Mennonites who had found refuge in tsarist Russia fled the new Soviet Union. Some thirty thousand Mennonites settled in Western Canada between 1870 and 1930, in rural enclaves that remained closed and German-speaking for many decades. Southern Manitoba experienced one of the largest influxes, with Toews’s hometown of Steinbach – the original of East Village – becoming the centre of a network of communities living in conditions of antique austerity. Like their sister sectaries the Amish, these old-world pioneers soon found themselves confronted by more forward-looking, assimilationist elements. Today, with the majority of North America’s half-million Mennonites living in cities, the peasant dress and beards and horse-drawn buggies have mostly gone, to reappear as theme-park nostalgia. Steinbach, once a homesteading commune, now offers tourists the Mennonite Experience in a sector of the original town restored and marketed as a heritage village. Like most Steinbach teenagers, Toews worked in the museum during summer vacations, churning butter and posing for tourists.
Hardline Mennonism is a religion of prohibition. Injunctions are its credal currency; no aspect of life, however trivial, is left untouched. Mobile phones, soft-top convertibles, chewing gum, coloured home appliances: all are forbidden. Avocado fridges and pop music are particular bugbears (‘in the Mennonite dictionary, hell comes after rock’n’roll’). All earthly pleasures are proscribed, the delights of eternity hymned incessantly. Life in East Village, Nomi reflects, is designed to be a ‘no-frills bunker in which to live austerely, shun wrongdoers and kill some time, and joy, before the Rapture’. Funeral announcements are the favourite radio listening. ‘There’s not a lot of interest in the present tense here.’
A Complicated Kindness follows Nomi from the onset of puberty at 13 to her sexual initiation at 16 by a boy who screws and dumps her. It’s a tough coming of age, made surreal by the gradual disappearance of her family, beginning with the ‘better-looking half’ – her older sister, Tash, and their mother, Trudie – and ending with her father Ray’s departure three years later. The author of this break-up is Nomi’s uncle Hans, the town pastor, a small-town führer warped by sexual disappointment and envy. In his hands Mennonism is a deadly weapon. His instrument is the ‘shunning’, a particularly savage form of excommunication in which the apostate is forbidden all verbal or physical contact, even with family members. One by one the Nickel women are threatened with shunning, and the prospect of death-in-life rips the family apart. ‘That’s the thing about this town – you’re in or you’re out. You fall into line or you fall.’