Given that it features a child narrator, I was a wee bit wary of Miriam Toews’ Fight Night despite having enjoyed her previous novels. It’s such a difficult trick to pull off, painfully clunky if mishandled. Toews’ new novel takes the form of a letter written by nine-year-old Swiv to her father who her grandmother has told her is off fighting fascists.
She likes stories to be fast and troublesome and funny, and life too.
Swiv lives with her mother and grandmother in Toronto. Suspended from school for fighting again, Swiv’s currently following an eccentric home-schooling curriculum overseen by Grandma while her mother is out at work rehearsing a new play. Swiv and her grandmother are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Swiv’s unborn sibling who they’ve decided to call Gord. Swiv lives in a constant state of anxiety: worried that her grandmother might die; worried that her mother might succumb to the illness that led to both her grandfather’s and aunt’s suicides; worried about Gord. When she’s out and about embarrassment takes over as Grandma strikes up uninhibited conversations with everyone they meet while her mother indulges in loud rants. Grandma regales Swiv with tales of her family, fighters all of them, then decides it’s time to see her nephews in California, taking Swiv with her, ten days which open Swiv’s eyes to all manner of things.
At some point in Grandma’s life someone must have threatened to kill her whole family unless she became friends with every single person she met.
Swiv is a brilliant narrator, instantly engaging as she recounts Grandma’s antics. The novel fizzes with energy and wit but there’s a soberness about it with Swiv’s difficult family history woven through her narrative as Grandma fills in the gaps for her. Elvira is a wonderful character, colourful and vivid, determined that her granddaughter will grow up a fighter equipped to face the world, fully aware that she’s a child who hasn’t had the easiest of starts. It’s all beautifully done. I tend to shy away from the description comic novel but this really is laugh-out-loud funny. A tragicomedy, then, that’ll have you rooting for Swiv until its end.
Faber & Faber: London 9780571370719 336 pages Hardback