Book review: ‘Fight Night’ by Miriam Toews – a hilarious and moving adventure through the eyes of a nine year old ★★★★½

Well, this was a riot.

Nine-year-old Swiv has been kicked out of school, so she’s spending more time than usual with her heavily-pregnant mum, Mooshie and decrepit but vivacious grandmother, Elvira. 

The matrilineal bonds in this family are messy, but they’re inseparable and they love each other fiercely. Mooshie is an aspiring and angst-ridden actress who spends her days fighting with directors. Elvira is the larger-than-life octogenarian who sprays hose pipes at policemen, lives in sweatpants and says ‘bombs away!’ when her pills scatter on the floor. What we come to learn is that both adult women are also battling trauma – that of growing up in a repressive religious community and of losing two close family members to suicide. Swiv’s father is nowhere to be seen.

‘Lou looked sad and happy at the same time. That’s a popular adult look because adults are busy and have to do everything at once, even feel things.’

Swiv, our narrator, is simultaneously innocent and wise. She knows her grandmother’s cocktail of drugs off by heart, is exasperated at her mother’s desires to smoke and drink whilst pregnant, and yet recoils in horror at the discovery of a pair of her aunt’s thongs and can’t quite understand why the adults around her behave as they do. But she is laugh-out-loud funny without being contrived, an authentic and refreshing voice that parrots the expressions of adults in her own niave way.

‘Mom is having a complete nervous breakdown and a geriatric pregnancy which doesn’t mean she’s going to push an old geezer out of her vag, it means she’s too old to be up the stump and is so exhausted.’

There’s an irrepressible energy within these pages, and it’s told in a stream-of-consciousness style with no speech punctuation. Don’t let that put you off – it sweeps us up in its tide and takes us along on the journey, as Swiv and Elvira embark on a chaotic trip together to the US.

Fighting in this book is a triumphant rallying cry to persevere against tragedy, repression, patriarchy – all the forces that work to dim the light of these vivid and unforgettable women. ‘She has to fight to feel alive and to balance things out,’ Swiv says of her grandmother. ‘So she keeps fighting. She said we’re all fighters, our whole family. Even the dead ones. They fought the hardest.’

It’s hilarious and moving, and truly original. Right down to its bittersweet ending, it’s a triumph. 

‘Maybe you should tie me to the mast! Grandma shouted. Like my friend Odysseus! She winked at me. She was still drinking! If we tied Grandma to the mast and we tipped, she’d drown. I could hear Mom’s voice in my head saying, Why the hell did you tie Grandma to the fucking mast!’

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