Elvira is a larger-than-life figure: Unafraid of death — of anything, really — she wears velour track suits and sprays passing cop cars with her garden hose. “Grandma jokes all the time and if she’s being serious she half-jokes,” Swiv writes. Elvira home-schools her in “How to Dig a Winter Grave,” sudoku, dream analysis and math, making up problems like calculating when their heights will meet (the solution to all equations, according to Elvira, being “who knows”).
Swiv’s voice sounds far older than her 9 years, which is understandable given the responsibility she shoulders. She cares for her grandmother, tending to her “hard, crispy feet,” lifting up her rolls of flesh to bathe her, combing back her soft white baby hair, serving as “Grandma’s human walker,” measuring out her heart medications and picking up the pills Elvira scatters with a gleeful “Bombs away!” Swiv’s anxieties pulse under the narration — she knows her grandmother will die, and worries her mother will kill herself as Swiv’s aunt and grandfather did. The book holds onto the past while leaving it beneath the veil — the methods of those suicides are referenced only inscrutably, the Mennonites are named only as the “town of escaped Russians,” Elvira’s native Plautdietsch is referred to only as her “secret language.” The real pathos of the book is in the present tense, in the child who grows up too fast.
Toews’s flavor profile of choice is the bittersweet, the tragicomic. “He looked sad and happy at the same time. That’s a popular adult look,” Swiv notes. “Do you know Shakespeare’s tragedies?” Elvira asks. “People like to separate his plays into tragedies and comedies. Well, jeepers creepers! Aren’t they all one and the same?” The deeper the wound, the more urgent the imperative toward the light. This book lives so much further from the flame than some of Toews’s others that the sweet threatens to overpower the bitter, to edge toward the saccharine. The pregnant mother, the dying grandmother — the end is in sight from the beginning, and Toews doesn’t steer away from a climax that knots the bow too perfectly. Elvira is the name of Toews’s real mother, for whom the book is a love song, without anger, though with a lot of pain. “Mom and Grandma know things about each other that they just have to contend with because that’s how it is,” Swiv writes. “They don’t mind. They know each other.” If the book’s overwhelming tenderness makes the reader cry, they’ll be, as Swiv’s mother teaches her, “tears of happiness.”
One of the foundational tenets of the Mennonites is pacifism, to which the novel feels like an explicit reaction. “We’re a family of fighters,” both Swiv’s mother and grandmother tell her. In Toews’s previous novel, “Women Talking,” the women of a Mennonite colony in Bolivia debate how they will respond to a series of horrific rapes. They give themselves two options: stay and fight or leave. They go, unable to conceive of what it would mean to fight. In “Fight Night,” the women understand that it means to survive. “Joy, said Grandma, is resistance,” Swiv writes. “Oh, I said. To what? Then she was off laughing again and there was nothing anybody could do about it.”