Book Review: Fight Night by Miriam Toews

I received an Advance Readers’ Copy of this book thanks to the publisher and to NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

Swiv is 9-years-old. She lives with her mother, who is in her third trimester of pregnancy, and her grandmother. Swiv is writing a letter to her dad, who has recently disappeared out of their lives. This is an assignment given to her by her grandmother after Swiv is expelled from school. The letter conceit is easily forgotten but it gives us an excuse to get deep into Swiv’s head and her perspective. She is just on the cusp of the age where she is beginning to be deeply embarrassed by the adults around her while still loving them intensely. With a very pregnant mother and an aging grandmother, Swiv feels it is her responsibility to keep everyone alive and make sure things run smoothly.

This is a story light on plot and heavy on character. Swiv, her mother, and especially her grandmother are all larger than life characters. Swiv’s mother and grandmother each have their own traumas and fears that they carry with them, things that Swiv is not yet entirely aware of.

In my opinion, it’s really the character of the grandmother who carries this novel. She is vivacious and eccentric. She knows she is closer to the end of her life than the beginning and lives accordingly, in spite of Swiv’s constant concerns. She is a woman who has a broad and vivd history, entirely believable even when we aren’t given the details. Readers of Toews’ work will recognize the Mennonite background that Elvira comes from. Where other books by Toews have focused on strict and traditional Mennonite communities, here we see a woman who has left beyond the restrictions and abuses of her former community so that our narrator, Swiv, knows almost nothing of what that environment can be like.

Another theme found here that is shared with Toews previous work (notably All My Puny Sorrows) is suicide. Both Swiv’s grandfather and aunt committed suicide, something that haunts Swiv’s grandmother and mother. In some ways, this is the fight that the title of the book references – a constant fight to stay in your own life, to battle against the forces that might bring you down, whether those are surrounding you or within you. Part of the fight, as we see through the mother and grandmother, is done on behalf of the children who may follow behind you.

Readers who love Toews’ work will find Fight Night very much in line with her previous work, full of new characters to love.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: Fight Night by Miriam Toews”

  1. Great review – I’ll be giving this one a miss as I *really* disliked All My Puny Sorrows, but I do like the premise. It’s rare to write a believable child narrator who’s still interesting to read in an adult novel, but the way you describe her having this intense sense of responsibility for her family while also being embarrassed by them is something I have seen in a lot of children her age.

    1. That’s probably a good idea as I think some of the themes Toews explores here are similar to All My Puny Sorrows. I can’t quite land on whether or not I like her work but I do admire it. The voice here is really well done and, like you, I haven’t quite seen a narrator like Swiv before. Toews really captures that love and embarrassment that we’ve all felt over our families before!

  2. You’ve got my attention with the mention of Mennonite people. The college I’m currently attending is a Mennonite school. I know the undergrad students have to attend chapel 10 times per semester, and the whole place is super focused on sustainability and world cultures. However, I’m not sure what Mennonite culture itself looks like. Do you think think this author captures that?

    1. I didn’t know that! It is something you notice much on campus or is it more just part of their history now?

      I’m not super versed on Mennonite history and culture but as far as I see it there are 2 streams of Mennonites. There are the very strict Mennonites, with separation of men and women and the women cover their heads and they hold very traditional, patriarchal beliefs. Then there are the Mennonite Brethren who are a more modern version of that. They may be fairly traditional in their religious beliefs but otherwise live life as the rest of us. Peter and I briefly lived in a town with a lot of Mennonite background and we attended a Mennonite Brethren church there; people were always trying to place us by asking as our last name. Mennonites all seem to have surnames like Thiessen and Friesen. My experience has mostly been with Mennonite Brethren who are very family-oriented and cook amazing food!

      I would say Toews work deals with the first strand of Mennonites, who are very strict, almost to the extent of a cult in that they are very removed from the rest of society. As with any group like that, it can lend itself to some serious abuses and that’s often where Toews focuses her work. In this particular book, the grandmother and the mother grew up immersed in that intense Mennonite community but left some time when the mother was still pretty young. So Swiv, our narrator, has very little personal experience with the Mennonites but we see through her the damage some of those ideas have caused for her extended family. I’d hesitate to paint all Mennonites with that same brush but I think Toews does capture the harm that can grow in such an extreme and isolated community.

    2. Ooooooh, that does make for a compelling book. Where I grew up, we used to call Mennonites “Amish people with vans” because they looked and dressed like Amish people and lived that self-sustaining life in a small community, but they always had a huge van. I wondered, does each neighborhood have one van and everyone goes everywhere together? Even now, if I go to the mall 8 miles from my place, I will see Mennonite people, who look Amish and wear tennis shoes, at the mall. Shopping for what? I don’t know. I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS.

    3. That’s really funny to me! Most of the Mennonites I know now are people who you wouldn’t look twice at on the street. Some of the older ladies keep their heads covered but even that is increasingly rare. I bet all those families have their own vans because once you have a certain number of kids, you can’t just stuff them in a minivan anymore!

  3. Don’t think this sounds like one for me, but what you say about the Mennonites is interesting – it’s not a sect I’ve come across in either real life or fiction before. Are they similar to Amish people?

    1. I would say they have plenty of similarities but are not quite so removed from the rest of the world as the Amish. They’re a group that initially left Germany and Russia due to religious persecution and I know there are some Mennonites in South America but I think they are largely a North American group.

  4. Oh I want to read this book so bad! I’m being stubborn and refusing to review it electronically which means I’ll have to wait until the publisher takes pity on me and finally sends me a hard copy LOL

    I’ve only read one other Toews novel, and I honestly can’t remember which on it is, although It’s not her most recent before this or All our Puny Sorrows – I want to read both of those too!

    1. Hahaha! I sympathize with you though I took an e-copy myself. I know I’ve read A Complicated Kindness and All My Puny Sorrows and I feel like there is another one I’ve read but none of the others sound familiar.

  5. I just finished this book a few days ago and I loved it. The grandmother and child duo works so well, and so many things made me giggle. It makes me want to read more Toews, but there are only a couple I haven’t read yet so I have to be careful to spread them out.

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