Fight Night by Miriam Toews
Of all the books I’ve read by best-selling Giller Prize-nominated Canadian author Miriam Toews, her latest, Fight Night is probably my favourite. It is also her funniest. Through the skillful use of contemporary idiom, Toews tells the story in the voice of nine-year-old Swiv who lives with her mother and grandmother in downtown Toronto. Swiv has the perspective of a child and the precocious vocabulary of an adult. Their multi-generational household has all the faults, annoyances and loyalties of any family and through the author’s genius, we are taken on a hysterically funny trip through a few weeks of their lives.
Swiv may be telling the story but the main character is really the grandmother, Elvira, a feisty Russian immigrant who manages to find continual joy and laughter in life’s series of setbacks and disappointments. Her daughter, Swiv’s mother, is in the third trimester of an unplanned pregnancy but the father has mysteriously disappeared so it’s the three of them against the world. The unborn baby is continually referred to as ‘Gord’ despite the fact no one actually knows the gender. Gord is an integral fourth member of the family and even he has a voice in Swiv’s narrative.
When Swiv is expelled from school for fighting, her home-schooling consists of a series of projects that include writing a letter in the form of a journal to her absent father to keep him up to date on the family. Her observations are hysterical, particularly when they involve her grandmother who tells her that she was a schoolmate of Euripides; they shared a desk at school.
There are so many scenarios baby boomers will relate to in this book. I laughed out loud as Swiv describes trying to get her grandmother into her compression socks, their shared love of watching Call The Midwife, and eavesdropping on her grandmother’s lunches with her ‘girlfriends’. The contemporary cultural references are brilliant and sharply relevant. Swiv’s observations kept me amused throughout: Why do you always shout? I told her because Grandma is hard of hearing and Mom is hard of listening so I have to yell all day long. I even yell in my dreams. Later in the book, Swiv and her grandmother take a trip to California to visit relatives and her recounting of that experience will have you laughing out loud.
Fight Night is one of those books I will definitely read again, like anything by David Sedaris. It’s much lighter than any of Toews’s earlier books and will take your mind off the weighty issues of the world. I absolutely loved it.
The Winter Wives by Linden MacIntyre
Baby boomers will relate to and love reading The Winter Wives by award-winning Canadian author Linden MacIntyre. It’s a multi-faceted love story that touches on issues we’re all familiar with—male bonding, sisters, love affairs, ageing, dementia, and preparing for death, as well as some other experiences we may not be familiar with like drug-dealing and crime. The story will appeal to both male and female readers alike. The Canadian settings in coastal Nova Scotia and Toronto make it even more relatable with easily identifiable landmarks and landscapes.
Peggy and Annie Winter are sisters who marry best friends Byron and Allan who attended university together in Nova Scotia. Byron, the narrator is a nerdy type characterized by awkward social skills and a pronounced limp resulting from a serious childhood injury. Allan is a football-playing jock originally from Toronto who befriends Byron until their paths diverge before graduation. Byron follows his plan to attend law school while Allan’s career path is more nefarious and involves vague money-making schemes back in Ontario. The two couples keep in touch over the years while living in separate provinces.
Byron and Annie separated after a few years of marriage and never had children. Before their separation, Annie helped Byron take care of his mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s at her rural home in Nova Scotia. Any boomer who has been in a similar situation will relate to the struggles of caring for an ageing parent. Allan and Peggy lived a more affluent lifestyle in Toronto. One day while Allan and Byron are golfing, Allan suffers an incapacitating stroke and this single episode forever changes the lives of all four.
With Allan’s mental and physical health gradually worsening, his means of earning a living comes into question. While Byron graduated as a lawyer, he was content to work at a small practice for many years until finally hanging up his shingle in rural Nova Scotia. Over the years Byron has provided intermittent legal services to his old friend even though he is suspicious of Allan’s ethics. While this novel is about the personal relationships between the four people, their business relationships are intertwined and complicated. It’s an interesting journey following these four characters to a final resolution. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Winter Wives.
In both of these books, the authors have eschewed the usual practice of setting dialogue off in quotation marks, which can take some getting used to. MacIntyre uses dashes (–) when one of his characters speaks, and Toews’s characters’ dialogue is not distinguished by any kind of punctuation at all which at times required me to re-read sections to get the gist. I’ve noticed this trend in several books I’ve read lately. Can’t say I’m a fan but I’m seeing it more often. Literature novelle, I guess.
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