A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

This book has (accurately) been called “darkly funny.” It’s also got a definite CanLit feel. There are flashbacks. It’s set in a small town. This town is oppressive. And nine years after publication it’s still popular, largely thanks to the darkly funny narrator, Nomi. Something’s not quite right with her, though. She lacks self-awareness: she is obviously smart—enough to know that The Mouth (the church minister)’s rules are bogus—but the idea that her sister will spend eternity in hell terrifies her.

However, a sharp irony undercuts her commentary, making her narrative extremely compelling. Beware this last quality—Nomi is so compelling that when you pick up this book, you risk inviting a demonically unshakeable voice into your head. You may find yourself starting to think in her voice, and consequently might, gasping, step back and ask, “What’s really going on here?” It’s of course a question that the residents of East Village should be asking themselves and—before we are too lulled by Nomi’s voice—perhaps also a question that we should be asking ourselves of our initial trust in our narrator and in the validity of her (and our) judgement of the cra—residents­—of East Village.

 Ladykiller by Charlotte Gill

Metaphors sometimes get out of hand. Sometimes, as in Ladykiller, they become so conspicuous that the other elements—plot, theme, character—seem to exist purely as a foil against which the author can showcase her flashy prose. For example, in a single short paragraph, someone’s blood is “a frenzy of hemoglobin,” “scream[s] through his vessels,” and his “red cells [race] like fire trucks” (3). The fault here does not lie in any single metaphor but rather in their sheer, distracting volume. Many of sentences have no verbs at all. If you omit verbs, you’re omitting action, and we’re bored.

Unfortunately, the non-stylistic components of these stories fail to redeem them. The characters are unengaging and the plots are mundane (holiday shopping trips to The Bay, roommate conflicts)—not, of course, that recounting the everyday is a fault in itself, but in Gill’s hands these plots remain tedious. I’ll end by quoting another reviewer, but what she meant as praise, I mean as warning: “[Gill’s] prose is booby-trapped with combinations of words so lethally effective they may as well be dynamite.” So, unless you want your stories to explode clumsily all over you as you read, avoid this book.

A longer version of this review previously appeared on my blog, Honest Book Reviews (hnstbkrws.com).

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Laura Bast is assistant editor at a small academic publishing company, Cape Breton University Press in Sydney, Nova Scotia. She completed her MA in English at Dalhousie University and is the author of the book review blog Honest Book Reviews.