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

The Canadian author once again mines her cultural background in a wonderfully drawn celebration of intergenerational bonding

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.

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