I have mixed feelings about Canadian writer Miriam Toews’ eighth novel Fight Night, which was a 2021 Giller prize finalist. On the one hand, it irked me and on the other hand, I could appreciate its charms.
Nine-year-old Swiv (although she certainly doesn’t seem like any nine-year-old that I’ve ever encountered), lives with her pregnant mother (the fetus has already been named Gord) and her grandmother, Elvira. Precocious doesn’t begin to describe Swiv. She’s been expelled from school and demonstrates no interest in going back. Instead her grandmother homeschools her; her lessons include things like suduko, Boggle, “How to dig a winter grave”, and letter writing. (The novel is actually Swiv’s letter to her absent father.)
Swiv’s mother is an actress who seems to always be in trouble with a stage manager or director. Elvira is the stabilizing influence and even she seems half crazy.
Grandma says fragments are the only truth. Fragments of what? I asked her. Exactly! she said. She asked me what my dream was last night. I told her I dreamt that I had to write a goodbye letter using the words one and blue. Na oba! Grandma said. That’ll be your assignment for today, Swivchen. She has a secret language.
Swiv recounts her families’ idiosyncrasies with a matter-of-factness that seems beyond her years. She is responsible for bathing her grandmother, and putting on her compression socks, for picking up the pills and conchigliette her grandmother drops on the floor yelling “Bombs away!” and, when the two of them travel to Fresno to see Elvira’s nephews, being her travel companion.
Elvira’s open-heartedness is contagious. She sees the dual nature of life, that it is both hilarious and devastating. “Do you know the story of Romeo and Juliet?” she asks Swiv. “Well, I mean in a nutshell. It was a tragedy. Do you know Shakespeare’s tragedies? People like to separate his plays into tragedies and comedies. Well, jeepers creepers! Aren’t they all one and the same.”
Toews mines her personal history here – as she has on past occasions – and it makes for fascinating reading, for sure, but maybe this is just a case of the right book/wrong time or maybe I was distracted while reading it. Fight Night worked for me in some ways. Swiv’s voice is singular. The way she relays the things she hears, her mimicry, charming. But the novel is written without quotation marks, and the paragraphs are often long with multiple speakers and I found it hard-slogging sometimes. Some things that happened at the end just seemed sort of over-the-top ridiculous and undermined that novel’s potential emotional impact. Or maybe tragicomedy is what Toews was after all along.
Life certainly can be ridiculous.