A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews

Knopf Canada, 246 pp, $29.95, hardcover.

Like Nomi, the troubled narrator of A Complicated Kindness, award-winning Manitoba author Miriam Toews was raised Mennonite, "the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you're a teenager". Her latest novel recounts a fateful summer during which Nomi's Mennonite neighbours retain absolute faith in the preordained story of their lives while Nomi herself loses the plot. The kooky teen just can't get her head around endings, in particular the workplace she and her fellow school leavers all seem destined for: the Happy Family chicken abattoir at the end of the road.

Besides, nothing in her life is going according to plan. Her best friend is in hospital with some mysterious complaint; her boyfriend, who plays the role of a young pioneer husband in the town's living museum, seems to be getting a little too close to his "wife"; and her life-loving mother, Trudie, and rebellious elder sister Tash have recently disappeared while Nomi cuts school, challenges authority, and attempts to take care of her father, Ray, a kind but faithful elementary-school teacher who spends an increasing amount of time staring out at the highway from his yellow lawn chair, "his eyes [shining] through his glasses like green Life Savers".

A Complicated Kindness works its way up to a powerful ending through the accumulation of anecdote and detail. Propelling the story is Nomi's voice, an utterly genuine, deadpan, and hilarious rendition of teenage despair and hopefulness. Almost every sentence is quotable, laugh-aloud funny, yet the humour is also clearly fuelled by rage; Toews's sense of the absurd works brilliantly to expose the hypocrisy of fundamentalist kindness, a love in reality all too conditional.

Rage is not the novel's only emotion. In 2001, Toews published the memoir Swing Low, an imaginary reconstruction of her father's battle with manic depression and his eventual suicide. For Nomi (and, one suspects, Toews), humour is also a powerful foil against loss. A Complicated Kindness, at its core, is a depiction of the battle between hope and despair. In this case, "love, like a mushroom high compared with the buzz from cheap weed, outlasts grief," yet along the way we are treated to an unforgettable summer with a heroine who loses everything but is ultimately able to hold on to life, to a sense of herself, and to maintain her courage and optimism in the face of a world without any guaranteed happy endings.