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Fight Night by Miriam Toews 

Miriam Toews does not avoid difficult subjects. All my Puny Sorrows was a great success with my reading group, despite its story following the increasingly desperate attempts by a woman to keep her sister from killing herself. It was based on the author’s own experiences. I found Women Talking to be a shocking account of rapes in a Mennonite community, also based on a true story. Both novels, refer to the power of women’s relationships, and to their strength in the face of tragedy and human frailty and distress.

This novel, different again from those two in its themes, highlights the resilience, resistance and stubbornness of three generations of females. It’s about fighting hypocrisy, exploitation and above all injustice in everyday life. After one episode battling to get her grandmother to lunch with her friends the narrator reports:

Fighting is so hard and yet we’re never supposed to stop! (34)

Fight Night

Swiv is the narrator of this novel, and the reader meets her when she is 9 years old and has already been expelled from school, accused of a ‘lashing out tone, which I’m supposed to be working on’. She is at home in Toronto with her grandmother and mother. Both these older women are great fighters. No doubt Swiv was following their example and advice when she crossed the teacher.

The novel begins as a letter by Swiv to her absent father. This device mostly fades into the background. The family is not in a good place. Her mother is pregnant with a baby they call Gord, and her grandmother is grieving for the loss of her husband and most of her family. Their family therapist has advised them to write letters to the people they are missing. 

The first section outlines Swiv’s unorthodox life and education. She acts as carer to her grandmother, just as much as she is herself cared for. They have a hilarious home curriculum, homework of writing those letters, and some maths lessons that require calculations about a jigsaw of an Amish farm, or working out when the growing girl and the shrinking grandmother will be the same height. They are assailed by developers wanting to buy the house, and the religious bigotry of Willit Braun. And the family are challenged by the consequences of Grandma’s irrepressible love of people and life.

Grandma rants to Swiv about what the church and Willet Braun did to their community. It goes on for about three pages, but this part seems especially relevant to so much that we see being done in the name of religion.

They took all the things we need to navigate the world. They took the beautiful things … right under our noses … crept in like thieves … replaced our tolerance with condemnation, our desire with shame, our feelings with sin, our wild joy with discipline, our agency with obedience, our imagination with rules, every act of joyous rebellion with crushing hatred, our impulses with self-loathing, our empathy with sanctimoniousness, threats, cruelty, our curiosity with isolation, wilful ignorance, infantilism, punishment! (161)

Grandma has a great line in problem solving, which often means avoiding the obvious or breaking the rules. Here, for example, Grandma and her old friends are talking about dying, including the value of assisted dying. 

Wilda said she was worried about saying goodbye to everyone before she died. How would she get round to it all when she’d be so busy with dying. Grandma said no problem! Let’s say goodbye now and get it over with! We’re friends, we love each other, we know it, we’ve had good times, and one day we’ll be dead, whether we’re assisted or not. So, goodbye! They all thought that was a good idea so they all said goodbye to each other and got it over with. (35)

Swiv’s mother is for ever rehearsing a production of a play, despite being ‘in her third trimester’. She has a short fuse, but plenty of love for the grandmother and Swiv. 

The first section ends with Grandma’s planning to visit her nephews in Fresno, and the decision that Swiv will go with her. From this point on their adventures take off: the flights, meeting the nephews (but they are old), a sailing trip, a visit to an old people’s home and a dash home. Nothing progresses easily, but much of it is enjoyable because of Grandma’s presence. She is friendly and fearless, so as they move through the disasters of this trip, she attracts people who will help her, rescue her, look after her. 

Swiv is young, as we are reminded by her horror of anything sexual (such as a woman’s thong underneath the bed), and by her naive observations from time to time. She reports everything breathlessly, and without speech punctuation. See the quotation above for an example. I know this annoys some readers, but Miriam Toews is skilled at telling a harsh and tender story through the eyes of this child. Swiv does not avoid the difficult and intimate aspects of the episodes in which she is entangled. She has good teachers, for her two carers have made it plain that speaking the truth, being direct is as important as learning to fight.

The ending is funny and sad but also uplifting.

I read Grandma’s letter to Gord the other day. You’re a small thing and you must learn to fight. (250)

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews by Alessio Jacona (Rome Italy) Capri 2015 via wikicommons

Born in 1964 and brought up in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Miriam Toews left when she reached 18. She lives in Toronto. Fight Night is her 8th novel. Speaking about Women Talking, she said, 

My goal is always to tell a story and to create characters that will move the reader. But I’m of course a feminist. I have a need to challenge that status quo that I’ve experienced. [From an interview with Katrina Onstad in the Guardian 18.8.18]

In writing Fight Night she has continued to create interesting and sympathetic characters, and to provide a plot that challenges the status quo. Recommended.

Fight Night by Miriam Toews, published in 2022 by Faber & Faber. 252pp

Related Bookword posts

Women Talking by Miriam Toews (September 2019)

All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (August 2015)

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A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

The reader is drawn into this novel by Clara’s distress. She lives in the town called Solace in Northern Ontario, Canada. Her world is all askew because her sister Rose, who is sixteen, has disappeared. And now a strange man appears to have moved into the house next door. This is Mrs Orchard’s house. 

Clara is eight, and we find ourselves hoping that things will come right for her and her family, especially given the new development of the man in Mrs Orchard’s house. Is he connected with Rose’s disappearance? What will happen when Mrs Orchard returns? 

A Town Called Solace

In A Town Called Solace three people are suffering. The story unfolds to follow each of them until their stories run together and are resolved.

Clara wants her sister to return, but she is disturbed by the man next door, for she has the responsibility of feeding the cat. Mrs Orchard was a friend to her before she was taken into hospital.

Mrs Orchard’s story is told from her hospital bed. We find her to be a sympathetic patient, helpful to the nurses and the other women on the ward. But she comes to see that she will not recover. The reader discovers that she came to the town many years before, trying to escape her reputation. Something happened in the past. We also discover that she has given her house to the man seen by Clara.

Liam is the man in the house next door. He received notification of the gift of Mrs Orchard’s house just as he was leaving his life, his wife, and his job in Toronto. His first plan is to repair the house and sell it to raise money so that he can start again somewhere else. He must do this before winter sets in.

As the absences of both Rose and Mrs Orchard become extended, Clara begins to trust the adults in her world less and less. Her father has used an ‘abnormally normal voice’ since Rose disappeared. 

Her father couldn’t stand an argument. If people were arguing he had to sort it out, he couldn’t help himself. He’d wade right in the middle of it (‘wade’ was Rose’s word). ‘Whoa there,’ he’d say, making soothing patting motions with his hands. ‘Let’s cool things down a bit, see if we can find a compromise.’ Or, ‘Let’s see if we can strike a bargain. Who wants what, let’s start with that.’ It drove both Rose and her mother crazy (according to Rose, being infuriated by him was the one and only thing she and her mother had in common). He waded in at school too, Rose said, and it made people want to kill him. But in fact he was pretty good at it, at least in Clara’s opinion. All problems had solutions, according to her father; it was just a question of finding them, and he always did find them in the end. (15-16)

Clara’s mother retires to bed and pays scant attention to Clara. Neither of them tells her the truth about Rose or Mrs Orchard. They were trying to protect her, but it causes her great distress.

Liam finds his way gradually in Solace. Clara visits his house when he is out to feed and play with the cat. He is unaware of the cat and Clara’s visits until he finds her there one evening.  He understands her need for straightforward talking and for her physical world to be consistent. He gets a job with the local carpenter to expedite the fixing of the house, makes friends with the local policeman who is very concerned about Rose’s disappearance, and he becomes a friend to Clara and helps her untangle the mystery of Rose’s whereabouts.

Mrs Orchard’s story felt out of kilter to me. Her episodes are not sequentially placed. She has died in Liam’s section, but we meet her in hospital before that event. She contributed to Liam’s wellbeing, but her story seems over-complicated.

In time, Clara and Liam manage to gain information to track down Rose. We learn what happened to Mrs Orchard. Liam eats pies and drinks coffee and takes up with the librarian who makes excellent ice-cream that you have to dig out of its box with a hammer and chisel. And the cat reveals that it feels at home with Liam.

I did get caught up in the story and wanted to know what would happen next. It is a feelgood book, and it will go down well with book groups, as her previous novel Crow Lake did. Mary Lawson is good at describing her characters so that, for the most part, they are rounded, not tokens. This is particularly true of the secondary characters, an example being Clara’s father quoted above. But we come to be familiar with the man who fixes shingles, the librarian, the woman in the diner, Clara’s school teacher, the policeman and so on.

The town itself is bleak, and well evoked, with the right details. Here is Liam, fresh from Toronto, exploring the town. 

The stores, ranged along the two main streets, consisted of the basics plus a couple of extras aimed at tourists. There was a small grocery store with a liquor store tac ked on the back as if hiding from the authorities, a post office, a bank, a fire station, a Hudson’s Bay store with parkas and snow boots in the window already. …
Set back from the road was an old church graced by a couple of maple trees, and beside it was an equally old primary school. Both looked too big for the town’s needs. They’d be relics, Liam guessed, of the long-ago days when the North with all its riches looked like a place to be if you wanted to get ahead. Nowadays, apart from the lumber, it was probably only the tourists that kept the place alive. (31)

When he thinks about going into a café he finds that both of them are closed. ‘Just after seven on a Thursday evening and the place was a ghost town’. But Solace has human warmth, decent people, with a willingness to pitch in to help those who need it. Liam soon adapts to the ways of the town, helping resolve the mysteries.

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson, first published in 2021 and in paperback by Vintage. 290pp 

Longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021

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The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe

On the day that Eva Carroll receives her first pension payment she leaves home. This is not unique behaviour for an older women in this series: Lady Slane, left home, when her husband (a Very Great Man) died in All Passion Spentby Vita Sackville-West. We are in the late 1960s when 65-year old Eva closes the door on her living but arthritic husband of forty years and a house in a nice part of Montreal. But the price of her freedom is high. Like Lady Slane, she confounds the wishes and understanding of her own offspring.

The Book of Eve is the 36thin the series about older women in fiction. You can find a list of all the previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe

The story is set in Montreal. Eva leaves her comfortable life and her husband of 40 years when she receives her first pension cheque. The marriage has been unhappy for some time, especially since her husband Burt became arthritic, demanding and penny-pinching. She strikes a defiant note from her first paragraph:

The real surprise – to me anyway – was not really what I did, but how I felt afterwards. Shocked, of course. But not guilty. You may say, and be right, that the very least a woman can be is shocked when she walks out on a sick and blameless husband after forty years. But to feel no guilt at all – feel nothing, in fact, but simple relief and pleasure – that did seem odd, to say the least. How annoying for God (not to mention Adam), after all, if Eve had just walked out of Eden without waiting to be evicted, and left behind her pangs of guilt, as it were, with her leaf apron? (1)

Eva goes to live in a down-at-heel area, finding a couple of rooms in the basement of a boarding house. She finds herself having to cope with almost no money and learns to live more frugally. She also develops an ability to find things on the street, which she then sells to the local pawnshop. She discovers the pleasures of the library and of reading whenever she wants.

She learns the pleasures and then the challenges of living on her own. Her son, who has a family of his own, cannot believe that she will not return to her husband, that she is not just making a point.

Her life had been so circumscribed by her husband’s demands that she had no friends. Now the other residents in the boarding house provide some community for her, along with a local cat.

But it is not so much about leaving her husband, more about fulfilling her desire to explore life, to have some freedom, to do the things she wants. This includes, somewhat reluctantly, developing a loving and sexual relationship with a man who also sought freedom.

Constance Beresford-Howe writes in a conversational style, often omitting the noun or pronoun in a sentence. God is often referred to, as in the quotation above. Her narrative races along, in a believable way. We are meant, I think, to take this as everywoman’s story from before recorded time.

Eva Carroll

The older woman, Eva, in this novel is 65 years old. She made her appearance when ideas about women’s independence and liberation were recently being widely expressed again. There is reference to Quebec’s laws about what women were entitled to from marital property. Nothing, even if she had made a contribution, as Eva had.

The early part of the book recaptures that excitement of the late 60s, early 70s, for feminists (Women Liberals as one character calls them). Life and its opportunities seemed to be about to open out for women.

But before this happens she is finds herself very alone, and with no one to care for her. She has a grim vision of the alternative.

Who needed or cared about me now? What use was I, fat old parasite, member of the third sex now, an irrelevant and uncalled-for detail of the human race. And a swift exit had at least some dignity, unlike those horrible lingerings to be seen in nursing homes, where death is the friend who too seldom drops in. No, much better to accept it now, and go. (32)

And she meets all kinds of contradictions and challenges. Her path is not an easy one.

Constance Beresford-Howe

Constance Beresford-Howe was a prolific Canadian writer, who lived from 1922 until 2016.

She was born in Montreal where she was educated to a high level, and then taught English literature and creative writing in universities, both in Montreal and in Toronto, retiring in 1988. She came to live in Suffolk for the last 10 years of her life.

Unlike Eva, she was happily married for 56 years, and she and her husband adopted a son. She was very unflashy and unpushy about her novels, and not many of them survive in print. She wrote ten novels between 1946 and 1991. Only The Story of Eve has been in print since its publication in 1973.

Recent posts in this series:

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe, first published in 1973. I read the edition published by McClelland & Stuart in 2001. 211pp

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What is the Prime Minister reading?

In the spring of 2007 on study leave in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada I attended a large international social sciences conference hosted by the University. One morning I found myself at a talk by Yann Martel the prize winning author of The Life of Pi (not yet a major motion picture but still prize winning and much discussed.) What, I wondered, would the author of this rather quirky novel have to say.

218 Life of Pi coverYann Martel blew me away, not by talking about tigers in boats and shipwrecks or the meaning of life, but instead he told us about a recent incident, which had left him very offended and not a little steamed up. And he was doing something about it.

The inciting incident

The incident concerned casual, even impolite behaviour by the Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, in the House of Commons in Ottawa. 50 Canadian artists from all disciplines had been invited to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Canada Council for the Arts in March 2007. In the visitors gallery the 50 artists stood up, were acknowledged by the relevant minister and in 5 minutes the celebrations of Canadian arts was finished and the MPs turned to other business.

From the shadow into which I had been cast, I focused on one man. The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute. He didn’t even look up. By all appearances, he didn’t even know we were there. (5)

The Prime Minister, Yann Martel told us, was shuffling through his papers preparing for the next business.

The action

Yann Martel, relating this story (it’s retold with slightly less vehemence in the book, which I’ll come to), revealed his complete commitment to reading and books. He began a project that lasted nearly four years, writing to Stephen Harper and enclosing a short book to illustrate why reading is so important. The first book was The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy.

In reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves. Sometimes this unwitting self-examination provokes smiles of recognition, while other times, as in the case of this book, it provokes shudders of worry and denial. Either way we are the wiser, we are existentially thicker. (16)

He received a short letter of acknowledgement in reply from the Prime Minister’s office.

He continued to send a book every two weeks, with a covering letter. It was usually shorter than 200 pages, and where possible in a paperback edition, sometimes second hand. He also set up a website so other people could see his choices, the letters that explained them and the responses of Mr Harper. People would be able to make recommendations. And they did.

The outcomes

In the event the Prime Minister’s office only acknowledged two of the 55 books that were sent between April 2007 and February 2011.

For a while Yann Martel’s small-scale pro-book campaign gathered momentum and followers. He compiled a book, What is Stephen Harper Reading? explaining the project, his book club of two people, and including the letters he sent with the books. Later he included the original in 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Both books are currently out of print.

218 St Harper

In October 2015 Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was defeated by the Canadian Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau. I was reminded, by news of his defeat, of Yann Martel’s project and got hold of a copy of What is Stephen Harper Reading? The book club had finished by then.

Yann Martel said as he ended his project,

I’m tired of using books as political bullets and grenades. Books are too wonderful to be used long for such a function. (Toronto Star 2.2.11)

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

218 What you reading? coverIt’s a book about books, and it’s a book about why reading is so important for individuals, including politicians. He describes it as a small book club but it’s actually a course in reading. He goes through 55 books, which he sent Stephen Harper April 2007 and May 2009. Answering the question why it’s his or anyone’s business what Stephen Harper is reading he writes this.

But once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me, because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do. As I wrote in one of my letters to the man, if Stephen Harper hasn’t read The Death of Ivan Ilych or any other Russian novel, if he hasn’t read Miss Julia or any other Scandinavian play, if he hasn’t read Metamorphosis or any other German-language novel, or if he hasn’t read Waiting for Godot or To the Lighthouse or any other experimental play or novel, if he hasn’t read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or The Educated Imagination or any other philosophical inquiry, if he hasn’t read … then what is his mind made of? (10)

218 obama2-large

The choice of books is wide ranging: novels, plays, poems, meditations, short story collections, children’s books, graphic novels, crime novels, in English and French, in translation and from the last 400 years.

It does the work of good fiction: it transports you to a situation that might be alien to you, makes it familiar, and so brings understanding. (From the letter on The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.) (95)

The making of art, as I may have mentioned to you before, involves a lot of work. Because of that it is implicitly constructive. One doesn’t work so hard merely to destroy. No matter how much cruelty and sadness a story may hold, its effect is always the opposite. … Art then is implicitly liberal; it encourages us towards openness and generosity, it seeks to unlock doors. (From the letter on The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison.) (145)

Of course, it is a little disingenuous of Yann Martel to reproach Mr Harper in this way for he cannot respond. But then he should have paid attention when Canadian arts were being honoured and acknowledged the gifts he was sent. Martel is occasionally preachy and portentous. But I can forgive him that for the intent at the heart of his action (connecting books and politics), and by providing such an interesting book about books and their importance. And I’d love to be existentially thicker.

A few notes on Saskatoon

People were very rude about Saskatoon, not a large city right in the middle of Canada. They told me it’s so flat you can sit on your porch and watch your dog run away for two days.

While I was in the University Bookshop the assistant said, ‘Gee I love your accent. Are you from London?’ At that time I was. ‘Have you ever met Madonna?’ I laughed. ‘That would be like me asking you if you have ever met Joni Mitchell.’ ‘But I have. She used to visit her grandmother in the old people’s home where my aunt was.’ That’s Saskatoon for you.

It turns out that Yann Martel and Alice Knipers live in Saskatoon. Joni Mitchell (get well soon) also claims it as her home town. Not bad for Saskatoon. Not bad for Canada.

What is Stephen Harper Reading? By Yann Martel, published in 2009 by Vintage Canada. 230pp

Over to you

You can find the complete list of books recommended by Yann Martell on the University of Montana Library site.

Characters from a famous soap opera?

Characters from a famous soap opera?

What is David Cameron reading? Do we know? Do we care? Is he conscious of British writers and artists and their achievements? What would you recommend to him if you had the chance, or to any other politician?

 

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Reading in 2012

DSC00108

So many good books read in 2012. I keep a record, a brief commentary, publication details and date finished. I’ve been reading so much more in the last few years. Most of it I am pleased to have picked up. There are a few books with which I did not persist, I wasn’t interested in what happened to the characters. I wasn’t convinced that I would get anything out of it. I can’t even remember their titles and I don’t record these. I can’t see anything especially satisfying about finishing everything one starts. Too much to enjoy to waste time on some.

Some books have taken quite a time to finish. The chapters of Sarah Bakewell’s book How to live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer varied in length. I enjoyed reading them, one at a time, between short stories and novels.

Then there were the Elizabeths: Taylor, Bowen and Jenkins. We looked at extracts from the first two in a writing class. This sent me back to In a Summer Season, and The Heat of the Day. And Elizabeth Jenkins’s Harriet and The Tortoise and the Hare show how one writer’s style can vary. Harriet is a fictionalised version of a murder, an account of selfishness and disregard. It was a disturbing read. Beautifully produced Persephone Book publication.

I caught up with Diego Mariani’s New Finnish Grammar. The author is a linguist, and tells a bleak tale of a man cut off from everything because he looses his language. He has no history, no social engagement, no conversation, no communication, no love, no belonging, no identity. Even his name isn’t his name. It’s about words, grammar, images, letters, stories, myths, history blended with insights into the fiendishly difficult Finnish language.

Newly published in 2012: Canada by Richard Ford. Unsettling to read, an insight into boundaries, crossing boundaries of all kinds, written in that flat compelling style of Ford’s. Hilary Mantel brought us the second of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell in Bring up the Bodies. She’s a worthy Man Booker prize winner.

And finally, life changing possibly, Robert Macfarlane, writing about walking in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. Such a generous book, there is always space on the path alongside him, and he’s an informed and interesting companion. He introduced me to Edward Thomas, so next year I’ll read Matthew Hollis’s biography.

No room for Persephone’s 30 Short Stories, published to celebrate 100 volumes, or Anne Enright, Edmund de Waal, Malcolm Bradbury, Ali Smith, or the scores of other books I enjoyed.

Now I’m off to curl up with Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour.

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