Miriam Toews’s novels are often described as tragicomedies, populated by war survivors, and set in or around Mennonite communities where Toews, too, grew up. In works such as All My Puny Sorrows, following the relationship of two sisters, and the spectacular Women Talking, about cloistered women who gather in secret after a series of sexual assaults, Toews grapples with the humiliations of motherhood, the burdens of sisterhood, abuse, grief and suicide: a wound from her own life that she nurses throughout her work. Her novels are heart-wrenching and raw; they’re all, in some way, about the drudging ordinariness of female pain, everyday indignities from which she extracts big tearful belly laughs. “To be alive,” Toews writes, “means full body contact with the absurd.”
Toews’s primary theme is the battles of women in a world of cruel men, and intergenerational misfires as mothers try to protect and warn their daughters. Her eighth novel, Fight Night, is an ode to grandmotherly defiance, embodied by a kind of ancestor that I, too, know well: a mouthy immigrant, an old-world fighter, a fiery human contradiction.
Swiv is nine and comes from a family of fighting women. Her grandmother keeps a scrapbook of the fights in her life, and now Swiv is suspended from school for the same thing. She’s stuck in a tiny Toronto home with her embarrassing mother and grandmother. Her father is gone, her mother pregnant, and Swiv must now protect her unborn sibling from these loud, bawdy, messy mothers who gab about sex and nakedness and drop pasta and pills everywhere and can’t even rinse the sink after gargling oregano oil. “Grandma is hard of hearing and Mom is hard of listening,” she writes, “so I have to yell all day long.”
Swiv’s grandma, Elvira, comes from a religious old world that she’s carried into the west; she remembers life in an unspecified “town of escaped Russians”, complete with a secret language, and stories of brutal men and their unpunished crimes. She obsesses over mucus and bowel movements and discusses them loudly on public transport. She advises Swiv on how to dig a winter grave. She’s full of practical wisdom (“There are no winners or losers when it comes to bladder control”). She loves being naked and befriending random people. Her hands ache, so she enlists Swiv to saw heavy books into manageable chunks. Basically, Elvira’s “got five minutes to live and doesn’t want to waste it on the small picture”.
Swiv cares for her grandmother: she washes her and pulls on her compression socks, and is both delighted and mortified by her “perverted” stories and quirky phrases (“You want Grandmas to be funny history lessons all the time, not the Kama Sutra”). Though the book is written as a letter to a missing father whose whereabouts Swiv wonders about in vulnerable moments, in its humiliating intimacies, private anxieties and meticulous detail, it is ultimately a record of her grandmother – and a requiem.
As with Toews’s previous works, Fight Night is also a war cry for rebellious women, a scoff at the dangerous notion that tyrants can be defeated with good deeds or prayers. Raised among Mennonites in Canada, Toews keeps returning to the unbreakable women in strict religious communities. “How many prayers of pissed‑off women praying every day for five years does it take to pray a guy to death?” “People sometimes have to be punched in the face to get the message to leave you alone.” And that’s what Swiv does: she fights. For all her efforts to subdue her mother and grandmother, she has inherited their fire, and she’ll inherit their battles and their brutes, because “Women are punished forever for everything!” and “Men who are otherwise sane and respectable will lose their shit when women attempt to set themselves free.”
Though Swiv narrates most of the novel, the wound at the centre of the story, a poignant tale of stubborn survival, is told in Elvira’s own voice to Swiv, full of ellipses where she pauses. Where Swiv’s voice is urgent, young and curious, Elvira’s is full of memory, anger and mourning. Given a chance to narrate, Elvira is wise, reflective, and the comedy falls away.
From the first page, it is evident that Fight Night is a story of a grandmother’s coming death – a looming final battle that will arrive on or off the page. “My body will become energy that will light your path,” Elvira reassures Swiv, who is learning a terrifying truth: that grandmothers die, and if grandchildren are lucky they will get enough time to memorise their scent, their soft flesh and papery skin, their hard-earned fuck-it-all attitude. When Elvira tells Swiv her stories, Swiv records her, longing to retain her grandmother’s voice, her words. In a certain light, Fight Night can be read as the fantasy of the grownup child who, years after their parent or grandparent is gone, wishes they had saved something more.
The novel is that something more: a record of one singularly irritating and beloved human who is missed before she’s gone. A triumph of devotion and imagination, it’s rooted in the understanding that we keep our loved ones close with every strange, shameful, hilarious detail we commit to memory, recording device or paper; that the dead leave the world altered, that life is continually renewed, and that we are made to survive the most unbearable losses. “We’re all fighters, our whole family,” Swiv’s mother assures her when she worries about her grandmother. “Even the dead ones. They fought the hardest.”