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A Complicated Kindness
By Miriam Toews
Narrated by Cara Pifko

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A Complicated Kindness

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A Complicated Kindness
By Miriam Toews
Narrated by Cara Pifko
BTC Audio Books, 2005
An Imprint of Goose Lane Editions
An Abridged Audio Recording on 3 CDs
ISBN: 0-86492-327-9
Genre: Fiction

Reviewed by Auggie Moore - April 8, 2005

A Complicated Kindness is a poignant, and oft times funny, coming-of-age story about a wayward Mennonite teenager. Written by Miriam Toews, who has written a number of books, including Summer of My Amazing Luck and A Boy of Good Breeding. This audio recording of A Complicated Kindness was based upon the CBC Radio broadcast of this book, which aired in October of 2004. This book is narrated by Cara Pifko and it has a running time of about four hours.

Nomi Nickel is sixteen-years-old, and a rebel who dreams of escaping the religious conformity of her community and moving to New York City's East Village. Raised in a close knit, and religiously strict Mennonite community, Nomi is not like the other girls her age. She's had a difficult family life, and she's angry at the world. She takes out her frustrations by running around with Travis, her pot smoking boyfriend, by ditching her school work, and pursuing other equally unwholesome activities. In part her unrest comes from the fact that both her mother Trudie, and older sister Tash, have abandoned the family leaving Nomi and her father to fend for themselves. Ray, Nomi's father is loving, but inept when it comes to exerting a parental influence over the troubled girl.

Nomi also suffers the two fold 'curse' of living in both a small town and in a closed religious environment. Her home is in East Village, Manitoba, where the two biggest industries are a chicken killing facility and a 'pioneer village' type tourist attraction that brings in carloads of Americans' who want to gawk at the 'simple' living Mennonites. East Village is peopled almost entirely by Mennonites, and the town forbids dancing and drinking, as well as the wearing of make-up and jewelry. Young people are to be chaste and in bed, alone, early each evening. Nomi chafes under these fundamentalist, strict moral constraints. She wants to do and try everything that is forbid to her - in part because these activities are forbidden.

Told in the first person, by Nomi, this story tells of her anger and frustration at growing up in such a strict environment, and why she has elected to dull her pain with drugs and by inviting chaos into her life. In this stirring account, Nomi's narrative jumps from her present heartache, back to her happier memories when her family was whole. In remembering these happier times, we learn the truth behind what caused her mother and sister to leave the community. As events unfold, Nomi's life seems to spiral horrifically out of control, but in the end, she is able to find the strength and the imagination to save herself.

At first glance, this may sound like a depressing story, but it's not. Toews is a wickedly clever writer who manages to take what could be a melancholy story and transforms it into a heartening story that is infused with humor and tenderness. The reader understands Nomi's pain, but you also see her good qualities, and those of the people around her, even when they are portrayed at their darkest. In addition, Pifko's narration of the story further highlights Nomi's energy and promise, bringing this unlikely heroine vibrantly to life. This is one of those books that you read, then read again, and then secret away a copy so that you'll have a copy to give to your own kids. A Complicated Kindness is an unforgettable story that will enthrall both young and adult readers.

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