Listen to a 9-year-old, and you could learn a lot about the world. That’s the benefit that Swiv’s absent father would derive if he were to read the letter that constitutes Fight Night, Miriam Toews’ brilliant new book, in which she triumphs over a tough assignment: to write an entire novel in the voice of a child.
Assignments are nothing new to Swiv. As she relays to her father in this letter, she’s been kicked out of her school near Toronto because of her “lashing out tone” after an incident during Choice Time. Now she’s at home with her actor mother and grandmother, and Swiv and Grandma swap homework assignments. For example, Swiv instructs Grandma to compose a letter to Gord, the baby that Mom is carrying.
Toews gives Swiv a voice that is sophisticated, childlike and utterly believable. Readers can see where Swiv gets her pugnaciousness: Mom has been known to rail against capitalism and get into arguments with clerks at tasteful card shops. Mom has reasons to be on edge, however. She’s dealing not only with a pregnancy and an absent husband but also with backstage experiences that have instilled distrust in her profession.
Then there’s Grandma, a free spirit who speaks in what Swiv calls a secret language and is passionate about Toronto Raptors basketball. Her joie de vivre, however, belies a dark history that Toews slowly reveals as the story progresses.
The novel features a supporting cast of men that allows Toews to comment on examples of the patriarchy at work, from Grandma’s religious older brothers, who packed her off to Nebraska to get a husband and study the Bible after their father died, to directors who subject Mom to callous treatment. This material could have been strident, but the wonder of Fight Night is that it’s a warmhearted and inventive portrait of women who have learned to fight against adversity. “You play hard to the end, Swiv,” Grandma tells her as they watch the Raptors on TV. “To the buzzer. There is no alternative.” You could learn a lot from grandmothers, too.