Fight Night by Miriam Toews review – a paean to the strength of women

·4 min read

Miriam Toews’s fiction always puts me in mind of the paintings of Agnes Martin: both artists use repeating patterns, creating distinct pieces from variations on the same basic elements. For Toews, the motifs that are reworked through all her books are largely autobiographical. She draws on her cultural background – growing up in a strict Mennonite community in rural Canada – as well as her family history: both her father and her sister killed themselves after long battles with mental illness. While these recurring themes are threaded through her eighth novel, Fight Night, the tone is markedly different from that of its predecessor, Women Talking. That book fictionalised a historic case of sexual assault in a Bolivian Mennonite village, where multiple women were repeatedly drugged and raped while unconscious; if they questioned the resulting injuries and pregnancies, they were told by the male church authorities that it was the work of the devil. There is a seam of grim humour in that novel, but Toews has said that holding the pain of these women while writing it was one of the most intense experiences of her life, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that she has shifted to a more obviously comic register.

Fight Night is an exuberant celebration of female resilience – though it too is shot through with grief and pain, and its power is in showing how these are not merely inseparable but interdependent. The plot is spare and focuses on the relationship between three generations of women in one Canadian family, most particularly on the bond between the narrator, Swiv, and her grandmother, Elvira. These characters are at once wholly themselves and reassuringly familiar; they share DNA with a number of predecessors in Toews’s fictional universe. Swiv most nearly resembles Nomi Nickel, the teenage narrator of A Complicated Kindness, and there is an obvious link between them: Nomi’s childhood nickname was “Swivelhead”, from her habit of absorbing adult conversations by whipping her attention between the speakers. Elvira shares a name and part of her biography with the author’s own mother; in the novel, she too has lost a husband and a daughter to suicide and escaped a repressive small-town religious community with an authoritarian leader.

Toews has carefully rendered the fierce love between these three stubborn, forceful women

The men of Swiv’s immediate family are absent. Her narrative takes the form of an extended letter to her unnamed father, who has recently left with no indication of any intention to return. As a framing device it’s not entirely convincing; for long swaths of the story the form appears to be forgotten, so that when the second person suddenly intrudes the effect can be jarring.

Swiv explains that she has been expelled from school for punching her bullies, on her grandmother’s advice: “Madame said I had one too many fights, which if I knew the exact number of fights I was supposed to have then there wouldn’t be this bullshit, I said.” While Swiv’s heavily pregnant mother spends all day rehearsing antifa theatre and raging against the state (“Grandma told me she doesn’t know how Mom was able to stop ranting long enough to get pregnant”), Elvira takes it upon herself to make up the girl’s missed education with her own eclectic life lessons.

Swiv’s voice, though engaging, can be tricky, not least because her age is left vague – we are two-thirds into the novel before she tells a stranger that she is around a hundred months (Nomi Nickel calls nine “the year I really became aware of my existence”). Some of Swiv’s precocity can be explained by the weight of responsibility she carries, though at times she displays a knowingness that doesn’t quite ring true in a nine-year-old and occasionally tips into archness: “He looked happy and sad at the same time. That’s a popular adult look because adults are busy and have to do everything at once, even feel things.”

In less skilled hands, the emotional double whammy of the novel’s ending could easily come across as trite. But Toews has so carefully rendered the fierce love between these three stubborn, forceful women that the reader is willing to follow her to the tear-jerking finale. She has created a gem of a book, sharp edged and shining, a paean to the strength of women that posits humour and hope as a choice in the face of suffering. “Joy, said Grandma, is resistance.”

• Fight Night by Miriam Toews is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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