#959 The anvil of female power
Fight Like a Girl
by Sheena Kamal
Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada, 2020
$21.00 / 9780735265554
Reviewed by Natalie Lang
What do any of us really know about one another? The reality of someone’s life is likely to be filled with multiple layers of who they’ve been and what they’ve done. Someone living in our home may have secrets and a past we are completely unaware of until a single moment unravels the truth, sending spirals of confusion and fear out into the world we thought we once knew.
Sheena Kamal, author of three previous crime novels, The Lost Ones (2017), It All Falls Down (2018), and No Going Back (2020), all following the story of a single heroine, Nora Watts, has now tried her hand at her debut young adult (YA) novel: Fight Like a Girl. A mysterious tale peppered with grief, trauma, guilt, a complex mother-daughter relationship, abuse, and a fierce seventeen- year-old narrator, Fight Like a Girl is a cultural mosaic of a young Trinidadian girl, Trisha, living in Toronto. Trisha’s obsession, Muay Thai kickboxing, helps her to navigate new knowledge of the people in her life. With secret pasts, strange deaths, and a twisted sisterhood, this story is one for every young woman’s shelf.
In Fight Like a Girl, Sheena Kamal has written a fast paced, dark, and mysterious novel where the characters and plot touch on realities of abuse psychology in groups of lower-income women. Utilizing tight chapters and a direct tone, the story is easy to follow as Kamal leaves breadcrumbs of suspicion for astute readers to pick up along the way.
From the start, we are thrown into the life of Trisha. For a young girl coming of age, who feels too much all the time and who has witnessed what no one should, kickboxing helps her to feel in control of a world that is spinning out of alignment. As everything else in her life falls to pieces, Trisha learns to seek “that rush” in the brutal dance of amateur kickboxing where she has the power and choice to “Train harder. Be stronger. Faster. Control [her] emotions” (p. 28).
Trisha toes the line with Sheena Kamal’s penchant for writing dark, moody, and complex female protagonists. With a cheeky, independent, and tough attitude, she tells a traumatic story of living in Toronto with a mother from Trinidad and a father who comes and goes as he pleases, carrying with him a certain “Caribbean style of love” (p. 16). This type of love, for Trisha and her mother, involves a level of abuse whenever her father is in town, a pattern that undoubtedly leaves traces of guilt and grief in its wake. This is where Muay Thai kickboxing becomes a powerful way of processing the facts of life, as Trisha seeks to understand more about, and resist, the mysterious events happening around her.
When stories of Caribbean vampires (Soucouyants) come up, odd wounds and events multiply, including strange and intense looks from the women in Trisha’s life, a car accident resulting in her father’s death (which may not have been an accident at all), and learning to fight with greater power and intensity in her Muay Thai classes. Doubt about what’s going on in her circle of female relatives begins to set in. Trisha comes to understand, as a series of unfortunate events snowball, that nothing is as it seems. “The questions are there, just waiting to spill out” (p. 111), but it would take more abuse, confusion, a search for connection and companionship, and “an anvil of female power like you never knew existed” (p. 32) before the truth comes out about what some women are willing to do to keep themselves upright.
With Trinidadian culture and Muay Thai kickboxing as the strands that tie this story together, Sheena Kamal has done a beautiful job in her first YA novel of sparking a powerful message for young women everywhere: “Be hella fierce.”
Natalie Lang is a teacher and writer. She is also currently a master’s student in the GLS (Graduate of Liberal Studies) program at SFU. She is based in Abbotsford, BC, where she teaches literature at Rick Hansen Secondary, and lives in a renovated barn in the heart of Sumas Mountain. Editor’s note: Natalie Lang has reviewed books by Jae Waller, carla bergman (compiler and editor), Sonnet L’Abbé, Larry Hannant, Tanya dePape, Emily Lycopolus, Alicia Tobin, and Cait Flanders for The Ormsby Review.
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