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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

A Complicated Kindness

Reviewed: June 13, 2005
By: Miriam Toews / narrated by Cara Pifko
Publisher: BTC Audio Books
4 hours on 3 CDs, $24.95

Nomi Nickel is one messed up teenager. Since her mom, Trudie, disappeared from her life, she has been living with her father in the East Village, on the highway outside of a Manitoba community dominated by some of the more conservative elements of the Mennonite faith. It seems to be a faith more honoured in the breech than in the observance, for the things we learn about in this town are enough to curl your hair.

If Nomi's life is that of a mixed up, rebellious 16 year old who knows way too much about alcohol, drugs and sex, she is not the only one in that condition in the town, and the place is not improved at all by having everyone else deny it.

Tash, Nomi's sister, could not stand the hypocrisy, and she left town with her boyfriend. Trudie, her mother, also vanished. In her case it was clear that she was going to be "shunned" - made a non-person - by the religious elders of the community, and it seemed as if she decided to leave rather than put her husband in the situation of having to decide between his faith and his wife.

Whatever her motives, it didn't work. Ray Nichol has apparently decided to make the rest of his life echo that desertion. Nomi tells us near the beginning that "the furniture keeps disappearing, which keeps things interesting."

Not THAT interesting, however: "Ray and I get up in the morning and move through our various activities until it's time to go to bed."

It's a cheerless existence in a cheerless town where most of Nomi's activities outside of school seemed to be aimed at staving off a dreadful lassitude.

While we flash back earlier times and get a pretty good idea of the family history, this story is basically about a year in Nomi's life in "a town not of this world" where the most likely job prospect is a job at "Happy Family Farms, where local chickens go to meet their maker."

Apparently the folks in Miriam Toews (pronounced like "Taves") home town are not very happy with her. They feel that Nomi's town is their town and that this apostate Mennonite writer hasn't painted a very flattering portrait of them. If so, the book is also not a very flattering portrait of Nomi, who comes across as a very troubled young lady whose perceptions of reality are tinged - no, dyed - with a melancholy nearly too deep to bear.

Oddly enough, the book is also funny in a dark way, as was A Boy of Good Breeding, the last book of hers that I read. It's a fascinating story, but it's also disturbing.

If the voice on this reading sounds familiar, it's because Cara Pifko plays Alice, the sanest of the lawyers in the firm whose tales have been told in CBC's wonderfully satiric "This is Wonderland" over the last two winter seasons. She does a great job on this adaptation.

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