On the Shelf
By Miriam Toews
Bloomsbury: 272 pages, $24
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There’s a reason “Ted Lasso” swept the Emmys this year. After an exceptionally exhausting two years that felt more like two decades, people need to laugh and be reminded of what’s worth fighting for, even if the feeling comes candy-coated and delivered by a character who leans on one-liners like a soccer player with a shin splint. But underneath Ted’s chipper demeanor, there’s trauma he’s working through, real meat in the script — including his father’s suicide.
I was reminded of this while reading “Fight Night,” the latest novel by Miriam Toews, which can veer from endearing to obvious to moving in a single chapter. On the whole, it’s a touching tribute to the matrilineal bond among three women of different generations, emphasizing the ways in which joy (as Elvira tells her granddaughter Swiv, our 9-year-old narrator) can be a form of resistance.
There are a number of colorful grandmothers in children’s books but a dearth of them in literary fiction. It’s a shame more writers don’t employ vibrant matriarchs in key roles. Perhaps the best in this category is Tove Jansson. Her 1972 novel, “The Summer Book,” centered on a 6-year-old and her grandmother on a Finnish island teeming with life, but tinged with death, shortly after the girl’s mother dies. It’s a slim tale of “lit moments, gleaming dark moments, like lights on a string,” as Ali Smith has written.
Darkness lurks in “Fight Night” too. But where Jansson’s story was leavened by vivid writing on the natural world, Toews’ is buoyed by a grandmother’s defiant sense of humor. Elvira likes to say “bombs away” as she drops her pills on the floor, laughs at inappropriate moments, wears a nail polish called Lady Balls and makes conversation with ICU nurses and passing teenagers alike. “At some point in Grandma’s life someone must have threatened to kill her whole family unless she became friends with every single person she met,” Swiv thinks. Except for cops, whom she sprays with a garden hose when they step onto her lawn.
Toews’ 2014 novel “All My Puny Sorrows” (recently adapted into a film) addresses mental illness and suicide, a topic the author is well acquainted with. Her father and sister both took their own lives. In “Fight Night,” Toews returns to the subject within the context of a family living in Toronto: rambunctious Elvira; her daughter, heavily pregnant (with a child she refers to as Gord); and Swiv, stuck at home after being suspended from school. Swiv’s grandfather and aunt died by suicide. The father isn’t in the picture, though the book is written as a letter from Swiv to him, and Mom is an actress struggling with single parenthood and her own mental health.
The star of the show, however, is Elvira. The epigraph, a quote from John Steinbeck, establishes her MO: “An odd thing is that sadness does not necessarily become greater with age.” It’s not that she hasn’t experienced absolute despair — not only the loss of her husband and daughter and others over time but also the aftereffects of her childhood in an oppressive religious community. (Toews comes from a Mennonite background and often addresses patriarchal injustices in her work.)
But Elvira is determined to have a good time. “To be alive means full body contact with the absurd,” she tells Swiv during a particularly tough moment. “Still, we can be happy. Even poor Sisyphus could figure that much out. And that’s saying something.”
Indeed, Elvira’s effervescence is gleefully absurd. She shows Swiv a walnut-size lump on her body and tells her she’s growing a new arm to hug her with. In the second half of the book, the two go on an adventure to Fresno. At a senior citizens home, Elvira entertains some old friends with a dance they remember fondly from their youth, but she kicks too high, breaks her arm and knocks out a tooth. She asks Swiv to drive them home, giving her an impromptu lesson in using a stick shift. “We jerked along, singing and yelling. Grandma told me I was doing a great job! We’re getting there! But she didn’t even really know how to get there or where we were going. She didn’t care. She just thought it was hilarious that somehow we were moving forward at all.”
It is a feat, when you think about it — the resilience we can find, even if it manifests itself as the dangerous careening of a car driven by a child. Swiv’s mother, meanwhile, worries she has inherited the depression to which her father and sister succumbed. “She said if she wasn’t fighting she was dying,” Swiv relays to us. “And that she has to fight to feel alive and to balance things out. So she keeps fighting. She said we’re all fighters, our whole family. Even the dead ones. They fought the hardest.”
Toews’ greatest talent lies in creating messy and lovable characters — the kind of people you’d want on your team (or coaching your team) if you were in a fight. Not because they are the strongest, but because somewhere inside themselves they’ve found the energy to keep moving forward.
Filgate is a writer and the editor of the anthology “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.”