The Canadian novelist Miriam Toews is open about her fiction’s autobiographical basis. ‘Every protagonist is some version of me,’ she said in a recent interview, ‘and there’s always some version of my sister, some version of my mother.’ Toews, who grew up in a conservative Mennonite community, published her first novel in 1996 at the age of thirty-one. In 1998 and 2010 respectively, her father and older sister died by suicide. Toews wrestled with these traumas in her thorny, tragicomic breakout novel, All My Puny Sorrows (2014). The question at its heart: if someone you love desperately wants to die, should you let them – and even help them?
In Toews’s eighth novel, Fight Night, suicide and euthanasia are relegated to background themes. Swiv, our nine-year-old protagonist, knows her grandfather and aunt killed themselves, and she fears her actress mother, Mooshie, might harbour an impulse to do the same. Elvira, Swiv’s ailing grandmother, discusses the virtues of ‘the assisted dying route’, having – we later learn – compassionately killed her father. Taking such matters into one’s own hands may be a religious sin and a secular crime, but these characters’ actions are emblematic of their staunch anti-authoritarianism. Fight Night’s animating force, deployed with no great subtlety but with rousing comedic brio, is female rebellion against the patriarchy in all its manifestations: cops, the head of Elvira’s old Mennonite village, the investor who wants to tear down Mooshie’s house to build ‘an underground doomsday-proof luxury vault’, the ‘douchepetard’ theatre director who sexually assaulted her. Mooshie, whose husband has walked out, ‘has to fight to feel alive and balance things out’, explains Swiv. ‘So she keeps fighting.’
At the start of the novel, Swiv has been expelled from school because, we soon learn, she kept getting into fights with boys. Now home-schooled by Elvira, who lives with her daughter and granddaughter in Toronto, Swiv is set the task of writing to her absent father. Her letters