Fight Night by Miriam Toews

Fight Night, penned by acclaimed Canadian author Miriam Toews, provides the perspectives of three generations of women in the same family in a bitingly funny story about love, courage, and acceptance. Conveyed mainly through the viewpoint of Swiv, a nine-year-old girl who has been expelled from school for fighting, the story is told through a blend of present moment and flashbacks. The latter provides a deeper understanding of the characters and their complex relationships.

The bulk of the story is set in Toronto, Ontario, where Swiv resides with her family. Swiv and Elvira also embark on a journey to Fresno, California to visit Elvira’s nephews.

Toews provides us with colourful and unconventional characters. Swiv’s pregnant mother is an actress who seems to be constantly in battle with her stage manager. Though many of her friends and acquaintances have already passed away, Swiv’s grandmother Elvira is unafraid of dying and embraces life, refusing to remain shut in the house despite the difficulty of venturing out. Despite her many health issues, Elvira remains good-natured.

Swiv’s mother and grandmother are haphazardly home-schooling Swiv during the period of her expulsion, though not by any curriculum the Board of Education might approve. While not working on “assignments” she’s been given, or marking assignments she’s given other family members, Swiv assists with household tasks, including assisting Elvira with her needs.

Swiv and her grandmother, being at opposite ends of the age spectrum, are a study in contrasts. While Swiv is youthfully innocent and squeamish about topics like sex, nudity, and bodily functions, her grandmother has no such qualms. Yet they also have a lot in common. They are in league against Swiv’s mother, whose volatile temper sets her off on tirades at times. Swiv and Elvira also enjoy watching baseball and basketball on TV, and are enthusiastic fans of the Toronto Raptors NBA franchise.

Elvira’s occasional usage of basketball metaphors and her enthusiasm for watching the sport on television made her a refreshingly contemporary grandmother figure. She is an interesting woman, with one foot in the past (having lived most of her life in a town of “escaped Russians” under the tyranny of a man named Willit Braun), and one foot firmly in the modern world.

Swiv herself is a blend of innocence and cynicism. She wonders why her father hasn’t chosen to be part of their life and worries that her mother’s eccentricities might be contagious. Despite her sometimes cutting observations, Swiv is a likeable and empathetic character. Her willingness to help her grandmother with her daily tasks is a redeeming quality.

“The prose is powerful and well-crafted, which should come as no surprise.”

Parts of the book are written as though addressed to Swiv’s absent father, while other sections provide advice to the unborn baby who is being carried by Swiv’s mother in a geriatric pregnancy. Though the gender of the baby is unknown as yet, the main characters refer to him/her as “Gord.”

Though the majority of the story is related from Swiv’s perspective, Toews also provides glimpses into Swiv’s mother’s, and Elvira’s, viewpoints through letters, dialogue recorded by Swiv, and other methods.

There is hilarity throughout the book in both the situations and the dialogue. Some of the humour is perpetuated by Swiv’s naivete, and by the way her youth and innocence cause her to misinterpret or colour some of what is going on. Elvira’s devil-may-care attitude and Swiv’s mother’s sometimes-jaded views, caused in part by her perpetual weariness as a result of her pregnancy, add to the humour.

But the book isn’t all “fun and games” as Elvira might say. Toews weaves in some philosophical observations about life, and the need to fight for what you want. Elvira discusses the way powerful men, particularly those affiliated with the church, had a stifling and negative influence on the members of the community she grew up in, replacing the joy of life with guilt. The stories she shares with Swiv underscore the importance of having the courage to be your own person.

The prose is powerful and well-crafted, which should come as no surprise. Toews received Canada’s Governor General’s Award in 2004 for A Complicated Kindness, and has penned several other novels, including All My Puny Sorrows and Women Talking.

Readers who favour a bang-bang plot may find that Fight Night moves too slowly for their liking. But those who enjoy appreciating cutting, witty, and sometimes dark humour with a dash of philosophical thought mixed in will find much to like here.

A Miramichi Reader “Best of 2021” Fiction choice!

Miriam Toews is the author of seven bestselling novels: Women TalkingAll My Puny SorrowsSummer of My Amazing LuckA Boy of Good BreedingA Complicated KindnessThe Flying Troutmans, and Irma Voth, and one work of non-fiction, Swing Low: A Life. She is a winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Writers Trust Marian Engel/Timothy Findley Award. She lives in Toronto.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Knopf Canada (Aug. 24 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 264 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0735282390
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0735282391
 -- Website

Lisa Timpf is a retired HR and communications professional who lives in Simcoe, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in New Myths, Star*Line, The Future Fire, Triangulation: Habitats, and other venues. Lisa’s speculative haibun collection, In Days to Come, is available from Hiraeth Publishing. You can find out more about Lisa’s writing at