Miriam Toews (Photo Credit: Mark Boucher)

A Review of Miriam Toews’ “Fight Night”

A Feminine Fight Club?

“Fight Night” Canadian Book Cover Art

Miriam Toews is a known writer in Canada, and one with a list of accomplishments about as long as her arm. She has won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award for her body of work. She has been a finalist twice for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize two times. The accolades might continue (though I am unsure) with her latest novel, Fight Night, even if it is a tad dramatically obvious as it is a book that practically foreshadows its bittersweet ending from the get-go. Despite that, Fight Night is a somewhat glorious read with relatively minor faults, one that is hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure. The book could even be said to be a counterpoint to Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club in some ways. While the members of Palahniuk’s work met in secret to become more resilient men (at least, that’s how I remember it from the movie), Fight Night is less concerned with physical brutality and more concerned about the mental and psychological impacts life has on the female psyche. It is a novel about metaphorically (and perhaps not so metaphorically) fighting to live and how life shapes women to be tough in their own ways.

The novel is one long letter that rambles, written by nine-year-old Swiv to her missing father as instructed to do so by her Grandma (who has a name, but I shouldn’t reveal it because the unveiling comes later in the novel). Swiv has been suspended from school for fighting with her classmates and is now being home-schooled by her Grandma, who teaches rather unconventional things — like how to saw a book into quarters to make them easier to handle and read. (Consider that Math class, if not English class.) Swiv’s mother is in the third trimester of her pregnancy and is calling the fetus Gord even though its gender hasn’t been revealed yet. Swiv’s mom is an actress but is having troubles at work and she requires therapy from a fairly recent harrowing event. In any event, Swiv’s dad is out of the picture for reasons described halfway through the novel, and the three women share a house in a western Toronto neighbourhood. The first half of the book is set there, while the latter half recounts a trip to the United States to visit some of Swiv’s elderly relatives that Grandma hasn’t seen in ages.

I’m not sure what to say about this novel other than “read it” because much of it is just storytelling that digresses and generally recounts the day-to-day trials of the main characters. Much of the story is, in its way, humourous, but there’s a dark undertone to much of it. It’s clear from the outset that Grandma’s health isn’t too good, but she’s trying to make the best of her few remaining days on the planet. And that leads to something I do want to say about this book: “Grandma” may just be one of the most lovable and funny characters to grace Can Lit. She’s tough in the face of adversity, always has a smile on her face and, given the fact that her body is essentially falling apart, she approaches being old with gravitas and a real sense of cojones. A lot of her dialogue is almost laugh-out-loud funny as she teaches Swiv to face the world without fear. The day-to-day of being elderly and sick can be perhaps boring, but Grandma has a real sense of adventure about life and she is the primary reason to read this book.

“Fight Night” U.S. Book Cover Art

In many ways, this novel is reminiscent of the works of the late, great Paul Quarrington’s output and I thought Fight Night has some similarities to Whale Music in terms of dealing with characters who suffer from mental illness with a lighter touch. Both books have a serious tone to them, but there’s a playfulness that exists beneath the surface. Unlike Whale Music, though, which had a more upbeat ending from what I can recall, Fight Night ends on a particularly bittersweet note, one that might take your breath away or perhaps cause a tear to form in your eye. You’ll see it coming from a long way off — it is foreshadowed quite strongly at the novel’s outset, so while I’m trying not to ruin the “surprise,” you’ll probably know how the book ends before it even really begins. Still, even with its predictability, Toews is a strong writer and knows how to tug the reader’s heartstrings. I felt a little melancholic as I closed my Kindle’s cover for the final time on this one, such as that Fight Night ends with Swiv being forced to fight against events that both affirm life and cause grief.

I did initially have a criticism with Fight Night in that I found, at the outset, that Swiv was an unconvincing nine-year-old girl. Not only does she use a boatload of strong profanity (though, you know, kids these days … ), she is familiar with the kind of adult language (not just swear words) and philosophies that even the most gifted child would have a hard time understanding. However, I did come to realize what Toews was doing here: Swiv is in the unenviable position of having to parent both her mother (who is falling apart mentally) and her grandmother (who is falling apart physically). She is, in some ways, much older than her nine-year-old self, and it is only at the novel’s end where we see that she might be entirely helpless. So you’ll have to take the character with a bit of a grain of salt. It could be argued that Toews could have done a bit more character building at the novel’s start to make us believe that this was a girl who is wiser than her age. However, it is a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things.

Overall, I’m not sure how Fight Night will fare in awards season. It might be too sentimental for awards selection juries and the writing, given that it’s coming from a child, is not always tight. The book, while relatively short at about 250 pages, is much longer than it probably needs to be. The novel is also sometimes tough to follow if you miss a reference to a particular character mentioned in passing (who turns up later in more detail), and it could even be debated that the book might have been firmer had it not been narrated by a little girl. Still, I came to love this book for the most part. This is a book about life — both its major events and its day-to-day drudgery, and facing both of these things with a strong resolve. Life is a constant battle, and this novel proves that the struggle is worth it — though you’ll have to work for it. Fight Night might not feature a physical bout in the boxing ring as the title implies, but it does show that Miriam Toews is a force to be reckoned with in Canadian Literature and she may just be one of the strongest writers Canadians have in their corner of the ring.

Miriam Toews’ Fight Night will be published by Knopf Canada on August 24, 2021. The book will be published in the U.S. by Bloomsbury Publishing on October 5, 2021.

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Get in touch: zacharyhoule@rogers.com

Book critic, Fiction author, Poet, Writer, Editor. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.