“It’s hard to grieve in a town where everything that happens is God’s will.”A Complicated Kindness
Writing good fiction about grief is difficult. Not only do you need a good understanding of grief, you have to know how to connect it with different characters. If a family is experiencing grief, they will face it differently depending on the characters. Writers often fail at this, instead creating a universal form of grief for individual characters.
Miriam Toews is not one of those writers. In two novels of hers she explores the concept of grief, death, and suicide in a way that respects her individual characters while challenging how our society handles such issues. That she does this while also being very funny, is quite amazing. Perhaps that is why the novels All My Puny Sorrows and A Complicated Kindness, made such a strong impression on me. Toews does not write two dark novels, but novels that are full of laugher, quirky people, life and death — in other words, she writes about our everyday world.
All My Puny Sorrows deals with the challenge of loving someone who wants to end their life. In this case, the narrator’s sister, an internationally acclaimed pianist, has attempted suicide several times and is in the hospital again. Although we hear the novel through the narrator, we get insight into why the sister wants to die. And we see their mother and the sister’s long-term boyfriend as they struggle with how to love someone who does not want to be here anymore. I will not give away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that the novel is an incredible exploration of living life while also embracing death. Although Toews makes no such connection, this could be on the reading list for those interested in memento mori. If you want a better understanding of suicide, this is a must read.
In A Complicated Kindness we deal with grief not over death, but the absence of others who are alive. The story is told by 16-year-old Nomi Nickel, who announces at the outset of the book that “Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing.” As she steps back in the narrative, we find ourselves with a family of four living in a Mennonite community in Canada, where they struggle with making sense of their faith and life. Nomi’s older sister does not fit in and is kicked out of the church by her uncle, as it is her mother’s brother who keeps the residents in line. When the older sister runs away, the mother begins to take long walks at night. Eventually, the mother shows up at her brother’s house, throwing stones at it and swearing at him.
“Everything my mother did after that night when she stoned her brother’s house and called him really bad names seemed mysterious and troubling. I think now I’d call it grief. It’s hard to grieve in a town where everything that happens is God’s will.”
Toews is calling out a community that does not leave room for grief, no matter what caused that grief. Telling the grieving that it is “God’s will” implies that they should be thanking God for their loss instead of screaming at God. But grief finds a way out and if we do not allow people to grieve, they end up throwing stones at our houses and calling us bad names. Driving that grief deeper into someone denies them the chance to live more fully. It is no surprise that the mother then walks away from it all, leaving Nomi and her dad to find their own ways to grieve.
Curious as to how Toews seemed to get it so right, I learned that she was raised in a Mennonite community in a family of four. Her father and sister both committed suicide, so bereavement is something she understands. Perhaps her novels are her way of throwing rocks at a house, in this case a house representing society, screaming bad names at us until we agree to allow people to grieve.