Miriam Toews’ second novel starts with a funny-sad zinger: “Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing,” and right away we’re hooked on our narrator’s mournful smarts. Laconic, restless, sixteen-year-old Naomi “Nomi” Nickel doesn’t fit in. Her mother and sister left town three years ago. Her Dad is adrift. Her best friend is in hospital with a mysterious disease. Her family home is starting to sprout broken windows.
The big picture is even worse: every functioning adult in Nomi’s hometown of East Village, Manitoba, is Mennonite. There are wall-to-wall Mennonites – “Mennos” – running everything, and not very successfully. East Village is a dump, a nasty pit stop with one foot prematurely in heaven, and the other bent on stamping out pleasure and giving the boot to smart kids.It is Nomi’s misfortune to be a thoughtful, honest, wild-child savant in a town that is a repressed, deceitful, ignorant hellhole.
Nomi tries to fend off creeping righteousness by using “drugs and my imagination.” She and her band of teen exiles drive around in pickup trucks, smoking dope, reading hipster novels, and listening to Lou Reed, dreaming of city people and city pleasures as distant as satellites. Sometimes they sit out on the flatlands and watch the distant lights of other, exhilirating places, before they have to return to their own brand of comic-tragic reality: “Main Street is as dead as ever. There’s a blinding white light at the water-tower end of it and Jesus standing in the centre of it in a pale blue robe with his arms out, palms up, like he’s saying how the hell would I know? I’m just a carpenter.”
What’s interesting about this puritan paradise is that it survives by attracting tourists. East Village is one of those back-to-the-millpond “heritage” sites, tricked up to look like a pioneer village. Nomi has a job wearing hoop skirts and churning butter. To Nomi, her theme park duties amount to bogusness piled upon bogusness.
Left alone with her...
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