I am one of the few people who didn't like A Complicated Kindness, despite all of the awards that it won. I found it to be a very forgettable book. I did, however, love The Flying Troutmans that came out a few years ago (I finished reading it just a few weeks before starting this blog, so I'm afraid that I can't link to a review) and have been looking forward to reading this book for several months, ever since I heard that Miriam Toews would be having a new book published.
It is set in the Mennonite world that defined A Complicated Kindness, this time in the Mexican Mennonite community. Irma has been disowned by her father following her marriage (though she remains on good terms with her mother and her sister Aggie) and abandoned by her husband, a Mexican, non-Mennonite, sometimes drug-runner.
Irma made her first tentative advances into the world outside the Mennonite Campo when she meets and marries her Mexican husband. She has a chance to further broaden her horizons when a Mexican film crew sets up next door and offers her a job as a translator. Eventually her sister Aggie gets drawn into the film, one thing leads to another, and finally the three sisters (Irma, Aggie, and a newborn baby) end up running away to Mexico City.
This book felt a bit like a stone rolling down a hill. It was a bit slow to get going, but gradually picked up momentum so that by the end, things were careening out of control.
Ultimately though, it is a book about family. A family divided by a violent father. A new non-traditional family that forms when the sisters take off together. And even a loose family-like-unit that sets up when Irma gets a job at a Bed-and-Breakfast in Mexico City.
I really felt drawn to the character of Irma. Initially shy and withdrawn, she is curious about the world around her and outside of her experience. As her sister Aggie observes, she likes the world inside her head better than the world around her. She is forced to take on responsibilities that she didn't ask for or want, and is often over-shadowed by her younger sister. And yet she not only survives but manages to thrive and in the end, she carves out a niche for herself. I loved watching how she grew up and gained confidence over the course of the book.
One of my favourite passages in the book comes near the end when Irma is writing in her notebook / journal.
YOU MUST BE PREPARED TO DIE! I read over the original heading in my notebook, the one that Diego had given me a long time ago to record my thoughts and observations. I pondered his dark advice. I scratched out the word DIE and wrote LIVE. The that seemed cheesy and too uncooly emphatic so I added the words SORT OF. AT LEAST TRY. Even that seemed bossy so I added, in parentheses, a joke: OR DIE TRYING. Then I told myself that it wasn't funny and crossed it all, every word of it, out and started again.
My one disappointment was that this book was so short and ended so abruptly. I would have loved for it to continue for another 200 pages! And I would love to know what happened to Irma and Aggie after the last page. Sequel, anyone?