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Book Review | Fight Night by Miriam Toews

From the publisher: Fight Night is told in the unforgettable voice of Swiv, a nine-year-old living in Toronto with her pregnant mother, who is raising Swiv while caring for her own elderly, frail, yet extraordinarily lively mother. When Swiv is expelled from school, Grandma takes on the role of teacher and gives her the task of writing to Swiv’s absent father about life in the household during the last trimester of the pregnancy. In turn, Swiv gives Grandma an assignment: to write a letter to “Gord,” her unborn grandchild (and Swiv’s soon-to-be brother or sister). “You’re a small thing,” Grandma writes to Gord, “and you must learn to fight.”

Miriam Toews, Canadian author of renowned novels including All My Puny Sorrows and Women Talking, released another stunning novel that broaches her complex family history and past in a Mennonite colony through fiction.

Fight Night, like Women Talking, features a dynamic narrator — this time the nine-year-old Swiv — and is told almost in real time, covering Swiv’s life post-suspension from school as she lives at home with her ailing grandmother (Elvira) and very pregnant mother (Mooshie). Swiv is hilarious, a trusty and angsty guide in far-from-childish circumstances.

While Mooshie makes ends meet and attempts to stay sane through her pregnancy, Elvira busies herself with not dying. Swiv keeps track of their mysterious lives — picking up Elvira’s spilled pills, scraping up Mooshie’s messes, and attending Elvira’s strange and wonderful home-schooling classes (including Editorial Meeting, Penmanship, and First Aid).

The internal life of these three sings through the novel, female and bodily. The intensity of each character’s internal life is wrought on the page, and Toews’ intense empathy makes them utterly believable as real people making real choices in a real world: this one. Toews renders familial dynamics in their full complexity, never simplifying how one can resent, appreciate, and love the ways in which she’s been made by her family.

The first part of the novel takes place nearly entirely in their home, which, through Swiv’s narration, is a kind of hotbed of undone tasks and accidents-waiting-to-happen. The tiniest household gestures transform as they pass through Swiv’s sensitive eyes. And, like a family, the three speak in a shorthand all their own (“Bombs away, Swiv!” Elvira says every time her pills hit the floor). The second part of the novel follows Swiv and Elvira on a trip to visit family in California. But, at the risk of spoiling anything, I won’t say more.

Fight Night reads quickly and has moments as hilarious as they are heart-wrenching. Check out this book if you are looking for a book that pulls no punches. Check out this book if you need more noise in your home and let Swiv yell in your ear awhile, like Mooshie before her, like Elvira before her. You’ll want to listen hard to what they have to say.

Fight night is available for checkout from the Galesburg Public Library.