Miriam Toews mines the same material over and over again in her novels. Thank goodness.
Because those novels, such as “Women Talking” and “All My Puny Sorrows” and “Irma Voth,” all include her Canadian Mennonite background, her family’s struggles with mental illness, and her humor in the face of life’s slings and arrows. It’s material worthy of a life’s work, and not one of Toews’s books (including a memoir about her father’s death by suicide, “Swing Low”) is like another, neither in tone nor in structure nor in plot.
“Fight Night,” her eighth novel, embeds us with the family of 9-year-old Swiv, de facto caretaker for her 86-year-old grandmother, Elvira, and chief factotum for her hugely pregnant single mother, Mooshie. Not only does Elvira share Toews’s own mother’s name; the author allows her characters to slip and slide along her own history. For example: Mooshie might be Miriam herself, as a pregnant single mother back in the 1990s, or she might be Miriam’s now-grown daughter who has two little boys of her own, or either of them might make up a lot of the precocious, ferocious Swiv, suspended from school for “using a lashing out tone” with a teacher, and frequently mistaken for a boy.
Not that it bothers anyone in this family one bit. Elvira keeps busy with sawed-up thrillers (easier for her arthritic hands to hold) and a schluckz or three of homemade wine while Mooshie swishes her mouth with healing oregano oil and wrings her hands about personality conflicts at her latest acting gig. Swiv’s schooling is in Elvira’s hands, with “lessons” like Editorial Meeting, and Math Class, where she quizzes her granddaughter on calculations like “If it takes five years to kill a guy with prayer, then how many prayers of pissed off women praying every day for five years does it take to pray a guy to death?”
Part of Editorial Meeting involves writing letters, which gives Toews a natural way in to Swiv’s epistles to her absent father, in which she updates him on development of the baby-to-be they all refer to as “Gord.” Later in the book a story Elvira relates will explain more about him, but the important point is that Swiv longs for more, and less, at once. More parental attention, less parental intervention (she wants Mooshie to stop fussing about green vegetables; Swiv and Elvira prefer conchigliette pasta). More clear information, less talk about sex and romance and desire. More family togetherness, less family history; although Swiv enjoys Elvira’s “secret language” phrases — bits of the traditional Mennonite Plattdeutsch, or Low German — she gets upset when she can’t understand longer conversations. “Why can’t we just do things normally?” wails Swiv.
Her question is urgent, but for the reader, entirely rhetorical. Even if our own families hew more closely to any norm, we’ve probably learned that even if a “norm” exists, it may not solve anything for any given family member. Toews lost her father to suicide, then 10 years later, her beloved older sister Marjorie also died by suicide. In Swiv’s family, a grandfather and an aunt, Momo, have both died from their “family illness,” often referenced by Elvira and Mooshie. Heartbreakingly, it makes Swiv wonder if she’ll get this illness, too.
More urgent, however, is Elvira’s heart condition, never completely named but serious enough for her to wear nitro patches and have a special nitro inhaler (after three puffs, it’s time to call an ambulance, Swiv knows). Mentally sharp and blithe of spirit, Elvira, like her Toewsian namesake, possesses the kind of resilience that can’t be designed. Devoted to the Toronto Raptors, a lover of music from simple hymns to her favorite band Creedence Clearwater Revival and on to the old standard “Pack up your troubles,” Elvira lives life in the present.
Her joie de vivre drives “Fight Night” into its denouement. She and Swiv had made a trip to Fresno, Calif., where many of the family’s friends and relations live in a kind of Mennonite mini-diaspora. They stay with Elvira’s nephew Ken and his ladyfriend Jude and visit with another of her (many, many) nephews, Lou; all of the above are sixtysomething hippies whose consumption of alcohol and interest in sex annoy Swiv to no end. But it’s when the pair take Ken’s convertible to a Mennonite nursing home that Elvira performs a jaunty dance that results in a lost tooth, a broken arm, and a trip to the ER. When Mooshie sweeps in on the first available flight, her mother’s condition stresses her out and sends her into labor.
Four females of different ages and stages will be in for the fight of their lives that night. If you suspect one will be retiring from life’s ring, that’s not a spoiler. Miriam Toews will make you cheer and sob for all concerned in her richly imagined “Fight Night.”
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
Bloomsbury, 272 pages, $24