MIriam Toews’ fiction always reminds me of Agnes Martin’s paintings: both artists use repeating patterns, creating distinct pieces from variations on the same basic elements. For Toews, the motifs that are reworked through all of his books are largely autobiographical. She draws on her cultural background – having grown up in a strict Mennonite community in rural Canada – as well as her family history: her father and sister committed suicide after long battles with mental illness. While these recurring themes are found in his eighth novel, A night of fightingthe tone is distinctly different from that of its predecessor, women who talk. This book fictionalized a historical case of sexual assault in a Bolivian Mennonite village, where several women were drugged and repeatedly raped while unconscious; if they questioned the resulting injuries and pregnancies, the male church authorities told them it was the work of the devil. There is a vein of dark humor in this novel, but Toews said holding the pain of these women while writing it was one of the most intense experiences of his life, so it may not be surprising that it has shifted to a more overtly comedic register. .
A night of fighting is an exuberant celebration of female resilience – though she too is shot through with grief and pain, and her power is to show how these are not simply inseparable but interdependent. The plot is uncluttered and focuses on the relationship between three generations of women from the same Canadian family, specifically the bond between the narrator, Swiv, and her grandmother, Elvira. These characters are both entirely themselves and reassuringly familiar; they share DNA with a number of predecessors in Toews’ fictional universe. Swiv most closely resembles Nomi Nickel, the teenage narrator of Complicated Kindness, and there’s an obvious connection between them: Nomi’s childhood nickname was “Swivelhead”, from his habit of absorbing adult conversations by whipping his attention between loudspeakers. Elvira shares a name and part of her biography with the author’s own mother; in the novel, she too lost a husband and daughter to suicide and escaped a repressive small-town religious community with an authoritarian leader.
The men of Swiv’s immediate family are absent. Her account takes the form of a long letter to her unnamed father, who recently left with no indication of any intention to return. As a framing device, it’s not entirely compelling; for long stretches of the story the form seems to be forgotten, so when the second person suddenly takes over the effect can be shocking.
Swiv explains that she was expelled from school for hitting her bullies, on the advice of her grandmother: “Madam said that I had one fight too many, and if I knew the exact number of fights , I was supposed have then there wouldn’t be this bullshit, I said. While Swiv’s heavily pregnant mother spends all day rehearsing antifa theater and raging against the state (“Grandma told me she didn’t know how mom could stop ranting long enough to getting pregnant”), Elvira takes it upon herself to invent the girl’s failed upbringing with her own eclectic life lessons.
Swiv’s voice, while engaging, can be tricky, not least because her age remains vague – we’re two-thirds into the novel before she tells a stranger she’s about a hundred months old (Nomi Nickel calls nine “the year I really became aware of my existence”) Part of Swiv’s precociousness can be explained by the weight of responsibility she carries, although she sometimes displays a knowledge that does not doesn’t quite ring true for a nine-year-old who sometimes tips over into arrogance: “He looked happy and sad at the same time. It’s a popular adult look because adults are busy and have to do everything at the same time, even feel things.
In less skilled hands, the emotional double whammy at the end of the novel could easily seem trivial. But Toews has so carefully captured the fierce love between these three headstrong and energetic women that the reader is ready to follow her to the heartbreaking finale. She has created a gem of a book, sharp and brilliant, a hymn to the strength of women which posits humor and hope as a choice in the face of suffering. “Joy, says Grandmother, is resistance.”