Fight Night by Miriam Toews is an exuberant and compelling story about three generations of women, living together in a house in Toronto which is loud, chaotic and full of cursing but, at its heart, brimming with love.
Our nine-year-old narrator Swiv lives with pregnant Mom and elderly Grandma. When Swiv is expelled from school for fighting, Grandma is tasked with homeschooling, and her highly alternative yet often practical approaches provide many of the early laughs in this book – from Sudoku and poaching eggs to analysing dreams and the mathematics of killing a person through prayer. The narrative is laced with idiosyncratic household habits (like their family ‘Editorial Meetings’), exclamations and lively dialogue, which infuse the story with great energy. The first half of the novel deals largely with their simple day-to-day activities, focusing on building up a vivid portrait of these characters and their family dynamic. In the second half of the novel, when Grandma decides she wants to take a trip to California to visit her nephews Lou and Ken, Swiv embarks with her on the adventure of a lifetime, where she learns more about both Mom and Grandma’s pasts, her wider family history and, ultimately, herself.
Grandma is without a doubt the life and soul of this book, a joyful and hilarious character. Her ageing body can no longer keep up with her brilliant and fearless mind, and it’s her antics and exuberant exclamations that draw most of the laughs in this story. She has lived a wild and full life. However, beneath the humorous overtones permeating this book, more serious themes are explored, and Grandma is often at the heart of these passages too. For every wisecrack, she also has a more subdued and well-considered word of wisdom or knowledge to impart, and Toews deftly builds up a beautiful, loving relationship between grandmother and granddaughter.
With Mom often absent or absent-minded, Swiv is left to largely take care of ageing Grandma, and take on most of the chores around the house; no doubt contributing to her overthinking and chronic worrying, and making her appear older than her young years. She loves her family but seems to be perpetually embarrassed by them. Yet we also learn that Swiv’s feelings lie somewhere between shame and admiration for Grandma and Mom’s strength and independence; because female strength and resilience, and women lifting each other up, is at the heart of this novel. Grandma tells Swiv, ‘you have a fire inside you and your job is to not let it go out.’
The concept of fighting in life also lies at the heart of this novel; from Swiv fighting in school to Mom and Grandma fighting to keep existence meaningful, fighting for justice, fighting against discrimination, fighting against their own demons, and fighting for full control of their lives. Along with the overarching theme of fighting for our lives, Toews touches on themes of broken families, trauma, mental illness and suicide, misogyny and patriarchal societies, and ageism. There are wonderful passages with Grandma and her friends, exploring how the spirited elderly fight to retain control of their lives.
Toews’ writing style here is almost breathless at times, heightened by the fact that there are no quotation marks; the narrative and dialogue flow as one. This serves to sweep us up and carry us along on a tidal wave of energy, spontaneity, and cracking humour; slowing intermittently to explore the more serious themes addressed. Fight Night is a vibrant and poignant story of family in all its strengths, flaws and idiosyncrasies, propelled by its brilliantly conjured characters, and is an absolute joy to read.
Fight Night is published by Faber on June 2nd 2022.
Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for my digital ARC.
Miriam Toews was born in 1964 in the small Mennonite town of Steinbach, Manitoba. She has published four novels and a memoir of her father, and is the recipient of numerous literary awards including the Governor General’s Award, the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award (twice), and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. In 2007 she made her screen debut in the film Luz Silenciosa. She was nominated for Best Actress at Mexico’s Ariel Awards for her performance.