The Canadian author Miriam Toews (pronounced “Taves”) is a doyenne of the tragicomic. As Alexandra Schwartz noted in a New Yorker profile (March 18, 2019), Toews is a schputter: a Plautdietsch (Low German) word meaning “one who is irreverent”. (Asked to choose between Gabriel García Márquez and Angela Carter for the TLS’s Twenty Questions strand, she replied: “the thing is, I like Roberto Bolaño. And Romanian cinema”.)
Toews’s humour developed as a form of resistance in the restrictive Mennonite community in which she was raised, and as a survival mechanism after her father’s and sister’s suicides. “What makes a tragedy bearable and unbearable is the same thing”, she writes in her new novel, Fight Night, “which is that life goes on.” In addition to Swing Low: A life (2000), a memoir written from the perspective of her bipolar father, Toews has published eight novels. She thinks of her oeuvre as “one big book”, she has said, with her protagonists “inhabiting the same kind of brain and body in a way”.
Fight Night is narrated by Swiv, an improbably precocious nine-year-old, and is framed loosely in the form of a letter to her absent and alcoholic father. Swiv lives in Toronto with her mother – an actress nicknamed Mooshie – and grandmother, Elvira (the name of Toews’s mother). It is a world away from “the old town of escaped Russians” where Elvira and Mooshie grew up, which they abandoned after the suicides of Mooshie’s father and sister.
Swiv has been expelled from school for fighting and “using a lashing out tone”. (The expressions she gleans from grown-ups are rendered in italics.) With Mooshie rehearsing a play and in the third trimester of an unexpected pregnancy, the task of home schooling falls to Elvira. The quirky curriculum includes lessons in Sudoku and “Poached Egg”, as well as “Editorial Meetings” in which letter-writing is assigned in lieu of therapy. According to Swiv, Elvira “has one foot in the grave”, which adds poignancy to maths problems such as how many days one might need to stay alive to complete a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Swiv is not only her grandmother’s tutee, but her caretaker, responsible for washing and dressing her, and a sometimes unwitting accomplice on her capers. “Grandma jokes all the time and if she’s being serious she half-jokes”, says Swiv. But Elvira’s exuberance belies the family’s…