By Miriam Toews
Bloomsbury Publishing: Oct. 3, 2021
272 pages, $24.00
When I began reading Fight Night, I only knew Miriam Toews as the author of two serious, dark novels about two sisters coping with mental illness (All My Puny Sorrows) and women in a closed religious community fighting back against its oppressive patriarchal culture (Women Talking). But within a few pages, Toews’ new novel had me laughing. And I continued to laugh for the next 250 pages. In fact, at times I was laughing so hard I had to put the book down to wipe my eyes and recover.
Fight Night turned out to be the funniest book I’ve read in years. That’s not to say it’s a lighthearted romp. The context for the humor includes misogyny, religious repression, mental illness, suicide, growing old, and fitting in to a society that just doesn’t understand you.
Fight Night introduces us to three generations of women living in close quarters in Toronto: grandmother Elvira, her pregnant daughter, and her nine-year-old granddaughter Swiv. The narrative is in the form of a letter from precocious Swiv to her father, who has abandoned his wife and daughter. Swiv has been suspended from school for fighting, so she takes care of Grandma, who is suffering from a variety of maladies, and Grandma home schools Swiv in her own quirky, common-sense way. Mom is away most of the time rehearsing for a new play. She is in the third trimester of her pregnancy with a baby they’ve named Gord (quintessentially Canadian) despite not knowing the baby’s sex. In short, their home life is very complicated.
Grandma teaches Swiv early on that life involves fighting every day for the right to be yourself and to find some kind of happiness. But the key to her philosophy is to be cheerful and flexible about the obstacles and setbacks she will encounter. When something unexpected comes up, Grandma shouts, “Fun and games!” Elvira was raised in a religious community that Swiv describes as “escaped Russians.” They spent some time in Germany before arriving in Canada. Grandma eventually escaped from the community to live a resolutely independent life, marching to her own drummer. But her drummer plays loud enough that her daughter and granddaughter can follow the beat, too.
Swiv’s mom is struggling with work, motherhood, and her broken marriage. We soon discover that she is also coping with PTSD from an unnamed trauma. She is depressed and prone to fits of rage (which Swiv refers to as “Mom going scorched earth”). She attempts to impose some kind of order on this chaos by maintaining a collection of her “special books” in an obsessively organized bookcase.
So yes, it sounds unrelievedly dark. But Swiv’s narrative — in the voice of a smart, fierce, and often appalled girl — captures their frequently hilarious conversations and misadventures and the life lessons she learns from Grandma. Grandma loves to watch Call the Midwife and British murder mysteries, both of which feature a lot of screaming women, made more annoying by the fact that she turns the volume up all the way. Grandma teaches Swiv in sessions she calls Editorial Meetings, Math Class, Ancient History, and the like, which involve learning through hands-on, practical tasks or stories from Grandma’s life. One of the many running jokes involves Grandma’s frank discussions of sex and bodily functions, to which Swiv responds with a normal nine-year-old’s mortification. Naturally, Grandma derives great pleasure from embarrassing Swiv.
Grandma knows she’s slowly dying, so she decides she wants to see her two much-loved nephews in Fresno one last time. Mom suggests that she take Swiv with her.
“Mom had finally said something that made sense. I wrote it on my calendar so I would never forget this day.”
Swiv does a little research. “I googled Fresno. It’s right in the middle of California. It has the worst air quality in the entire United States. I told Grandma she might not be able to breathe in Fresno and would die. She said what on earth are you talking about! You can barely breathe here, I said, and in Fresno you’ll probably die! Well, said Grandma, then it’s a good thing you’re coming with me. To watch you die? I said. To keep me from dying! said Grandma. How the holy hell am I supposed to do that! I said. I don’t want to watch you die in Fresno! . . . Grandma said she had a lot of relatives in Fresno because a bunch of people from her town of escaped Russians decided they didn’t want to freeze to death in Canada anymore, they wanted to suffocate to death from bad air instead.”
Before they leave, Grandma needs to run some other errands. Swiv and her mom accompany her on the bus into town. Grandma and Swiv find seats but Mom is left standing. She becomes angry when three men won’t give up their seat. “Excuse me, but these seats aren’t meant for you. The men were all deaf or they didn’t want to answer her and they just stared at their phones or into space. Mom said she was pregnant. One of the guys said congratulations but didn’t move. . .
“Then she stood there silently like a normal person, which was such a relief that I almost started crying. But then no, she couldn’t bear to be normal for more than four seconds and she said to the woman standing next to her that this kind of thing made her mental and I wanted to tell the woman standing next to her that every kind of thing made Mom mental and do not respond! The woman standing next to Mom said, I know, right? I lose my shit. Mom had found a crazy friend!”
But just then her mom and the woman get into an argument with the men. “I had to do something. I couldn’t slice my head off by slamming the window on it because they were sealed up to keep children safe.” She stands up, tells Grandma that it’s their stop and hustles her off the bus. They end up standing in front of a “gentleman’s club” called For Your Eyes Only. Hilarity ensues.
The second half of the novel is essentially an odd couple road trip (via airplane) to Fresno. No plot spoilers here; I will only note that Grandma continues with her exploits and Swiv, far from home and Mom, grows up even faster. Grandma and granddaughter make it back to Toronto for a conclusion that makes perfect sense.
Fight Night gives us a close-up view of how grandmothers pass their hard-earned wisdom on to their granddaughters. As the reviewer in Booklist so eloquently said, “Elvira espouses an uplifting legacy: the wisdom that we’re born with is a light inside of us; that our job is to not let it go out; and that our ancestors are ahead of us to light the path.”
Fight Night is full of life, love, and bittersweet moments. You’ll miss Grandma and Swiv as soon as you close the book.