Complicated Lives

  • Caroline Adderson
    Sitting Practice. Thomas Allen & Sons Ltd.
  • Pauline Holdstock
    Beyond Measure. Cormorant Books
  • Miriam Toews
    A Complicated Kindness. Knopf Canada
Reviewed by Barbara Pell

In Sitting Practice, Caroline Adderson has employed every West Coast love story cliché and attached them to a double gimmick: Spinal Cord Injury and Buddhism. Consequently, despite her competent prose, careful research, and clever symbolism, we don’t ultimately believe in her characters or care about their problems and solutions.

Iliana (a repressed, rebellious victim of Fraser Valley religion) marries a fat, feckless Vancouver movie caterer, who is more interested in the wedding dinner (sacrificial lamb) and his twelve former girlfriends than in his bride. Three weeks later, he causes a fluke car accident in which she becomes a paraplegic. Desperately contrite, he sells his business, moves to Duncan, and becomes a Vancouver Island stereotype: slim, vegetarian bicyclist, organic-café-owner (he moves from Reel Food to Real Food), and Buddhist convert. In discovering that “pleasure and pain were the same,” he is doing “sitting practice” like Iliana, who learns to bake bread and cope courageously with life in a wheelchair. However, Ross’ guilt-induced celibacy drives Iliana into an affair with the local (juvenile) handyman. After Ross finds out, she confesses that sex with Stevie was “good, but it wasn’t fun.” So they make love and, presumably, a baby and live happily ever after. Meanwhile, Ross’ twin, Bonnie—incestuously obsessed with her brother and suicidally depressed with her love life—joins them with her precocious four-year-old (Ross’ surrogate son). After much self-centred angst, she survives yet another infatuation-with-a-man-who-turns-out-to-be-gay and finds meaning and purpose in fashion counselling for frumpy female Islanders.

In Beyond Measure, Pauline Holdstock explores the relationship between human creativity and human cruelty in a time and place where they were most pronounced: Renaissance Italy. The relentless pursuit of artistic knowledge and pleasure is justified by the artist’s imitation of God’s creation: “Only in the experience can Nature be known. Only in Art can she be revealed. . . . For the duty of man is to know God. And to know God, man has only to look to his Creation.” But these ambitions “to dissect or to enhance” Nature in Art beyond human measure and moral responsibility cause the terrible destruction of innocent lives.

Mid-sixteenth century Florence is the setting for a group of artists including Paolo Pallavincino, who secretly dissects hanged corpses and live animals to research their anatomy; Matteo Tassi, a brilliant sculptor and drunken lecher; and Sofonisba Fabroni, a female artist whose skill rivals her father’s but is subjugated to the patriarchy. They and the buffoon Allesandro, whose superstitious devices to win Sofonisba from Matteo drive much of the plot, are connected by the mysterious, tragic slave-girl Chiara (from chiaroscuro, because of her mottled skin pigmentation). Shunned as a scapegoat for everyone’s misfortunes, she is passed from one character to another until Sofonisba betrays her in a jealous practical joke against Matteo. The result for various characters is humiliation, rape, trial, torture, threatened hanging, and final exile. Meanwhile, two of the extravagant festival creations of these artists, in celebration of the corrupt, dissolute powers of Church and State, result in the deaths of innocent servants. The “happy ending” finds the artists chastened for their hubris, having learned that “beauty” is “nothing more—or less—than love.”

Holdstock’s novel, which deals with important, complex aesthetic and moral themes, unfortunately often reads like a Renaissance art manual cum historical “bodice-ripper.” There is too much technical detail and too many characters (all unsympathetic except for Chiara, a mute and passive victim) whose frenetic plot permutations are motivated purely by greed and power. The “love” that redeems the brief Epilogue seems very much an afterthought in Holdstock’s universe.

You don’t have to be Mennonite to find A Complicated Kindness hilarious, but I am assured that it helps so much that my Mennonite friends couldn’t put the book down, except when laughing so hard that they dropped it. My initial reaction was to resist yet another “rebellious-adolescent-dysfunctional-family-blame-it-all-on-religion novel” (see Adderson, above), but Miriam Toews has transcended all the clichés to create a wise, brave, decent, and tremendously funny protagonist who recognises the “complicated kindness” of a faith that preaches and often practises love within a sometimes rigid, repressive, and destructive church: “We’re Mennonites. As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. . . . Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in 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. . . . Thanks a lot, Menno.”

Nomi Nickel lives with her father, Ray, in East Village, Manitoba, a small Mennonite town ruled by the pastor, her narrow-minded, judgemental Uncle Hans (a.k.a. The Mouth). “Half of [her] family, the better-looking half, is missing”—her vivacious mother Trudie, and older sister, Natasha. Her gentle, bewildered father teaches Grade 6, goes to church, communicates with Nomi through notes, and begins to sell all of the household furniture to exorcise his past. Nomi rebels against Grade 12 (and its graduation reward: a career in the local chicken abattoir), smokes pot, has sex with Travis (who dumps her), and tries to discover why her mother left. In the bittersweet ending Ray does for Nomi what Trudie did for him: a sacrifice of love to overcome a religion of guilt and condemnation expressed in “shunning.”

Many readers will know that Toews, who grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba, wrote a memoir of her father’s manic depressive life and tragic suicide, Swing Low: A Life. While she says that she created Nomi to help her deal with his loss, partly caused by “the damage that fundamentalism can do,” she also respects the complicated kindness of a “faith that stopped him from being afraid” at the end of his life. With narrative brilliance and deep compassion, she has written a wise and wonderful novel.

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