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Fight Night by Miriam Toews review: The funniest, smartest novel you’ll read this year

This brilliantly clever, empathetic and big-heated novel blazes a bright trail which many will imitate but few will match, writes Chris Deerin.

Woman with face in hands

Photo: Dev Asangbam on Unsplash

There are things one can reliably expect from a Miriam Toews novel: a precocious and disturbed child in a lead role, a mysteriously vanished family member, at least one suicide, and the ability to take subject matter of the darkest kind and illuminate it with joyful, razor-sharp humour.

Fight Night meets all these expectations, and then some. It is the funniest, most life-affirming and most virtuosic novel I expect to read this year. I doubt I’ll read a better novel, full stop.

Fight Night by Miriam Toews is out now on Kindle (£6.02) and in hardback on June 2 (Faber & Faber, £14.99)

Swiv is its nine-year-old protagonist, kooky, curious and wise beyond her years. She is suspended from school for scrapping – “Madame said I had one too many fights, which if I knew the exact number of fights I was supposed to have then there wouldn’t be this bullshit” – and is nominally in the care of her velour-tracksuited grandmother, Elvira (her heavily-pregnant actress mother swoops in and out, her father has disappeared). 

Every sharply-turned sentence and passage of dialogue fizzes with invention, imparting the book a chaotic energy

In practice, the relationship works the other way round. Elvira is a huge character, both physically and in personality, so sick she survives only by consuming galactic amounts of pills each day, but showing blithe disregard for the prospect of death – “she says when she kicks the bucket I should just put her in a pickle jar and go outside and play already,” reports Swiv.

Poor Swiv has the task of helping her gran get around and even bathe: “I have to lift up her rolls of fat to get in the creases and even wash her giant butt and boobs and the bottom of her hard, crispy feet.” Meanwhile, Elvira cackles her way through what the reader knows to be borrowed time, passing on a wild lifetime’s worth of unconventional skills and wisdom to her grand-daughter.

There is so much to love about Fight Night. Every sharply-turned sentence and passage of dialogue fizzes with invention, imparting the book a chaotic energy.

The empathy that softens the jagged comedy, so visible in Toews’ great past works such as All My Puny Sorrows and The Flying Troutmans, does its job again here. Swiv, her mother and Elvira are a dysfunctional family unit that survive on profound mutual love. They will live on in your mind, as they have in mine. Read it, then read the rest of Toews’s staggering back catalogue.

@chrisdeerin

Fight Night by Miriam Toews is published June 2 on Faber & Faber

You can buy Fight Night from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops

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