*First published in The Stake
It’s not every day a slam-winning performance poet writes a novel. But Anna Freeman, slam poet and writing teacher extraordinaire, has done it. The Fair Fight, her delicious new novel about female boxers duking it out in the 18th century, is a must-read. Freeman tackles the tough subject of women’s rage with an unusual twist, and in the process has created a delightful page turner.
The Fair Fight opens from the viewpoint of Ruth, a girl born in a Bristol brothel in the late 18th century. Ruth is relentlessly cheerful and happily profane. She knows all about sex and doesn’t shy away from the horrible truths of living in a whorehouse. Ruth’s mother is the madame of the house, and both Ruth and her sister, Dora, must work if they want to stay with their mother and have a roof over their heads. The sisters have the same patron, Granville Dryer. While he keeps Dora for his own special sexual pleasures, Granville carts Ruth around to different fighting matches. Ruth fights because it’s the only way she’s ever lived; she was born fighting. Fighting with her fists is preferable to prostitution or keeping the house clean.
Tangled up and around Ruth’s story is George, another of the novel’s narrator. George is the youngest son of an aspiring family with no use for him. After George proves no good at a law or any other profession, he moves in with Percy Sinclair, his lover and best friend from school. They drink and carouse their way around town with Dryer taking them along to Ruth’s boxing matches. George is sweet tempered, polite, and prone to vice. He doesn’t grasp much of the world around him, and this becomes clear when another narrator, Charlotte, steps forward with her version of their story. George naively believes Percy’s sister Charlotte is sweet and innocent. When Charlotte narrates her own story, it is clear that she is neither.
Like George, Charlotte is well educated with polite manners and a strong preference for hard drinking. She is the scarred survivor of small pox, losing both parents and all her siblings but Percy to the disease. Charlotte is haunted by her deceased mother, at turns longing for her and then raging over her mother’s neglectful treatment. Everything Charlotte does or says is measured against her perfect mother. Her rage, boiling since she was a child, rises a little higher each time she struggles with her memories. Most have no idea about the furious storm going on in self-contained, quiet Charlotte, except for Percy. They tormented each other ceaselessly since childhood and keep on even after all their other family members have died. Both level their spite and disgust over life at each other.
Charlotte paces in her gilded cage, tearing at her pitted, pox-marked skin in moments of hatred and despair. She is alone, unable to venture out in the world due to her upper class status. She drinks to dull her purposeless existence and sleep walks through her narrow life.
During a rare outing, she sees Ruth at a boxing match. Watching a woman fight with her fists changes the world for Charlotte; she is never the same again. She eats, sleeps, and dreams pugilism. She embroiders a female boxer on a pillow and reads about every boxing match she can get her hands on.
And at last, on one fateful day, Ruth and Charlotte meet. From that moment, neither is ever fully alone again. Both save each other from a mire of loneliness and inwardly fixed anger. Charlotte learns how to box and Ruth is given a small income and food in return. They box together in private, away from the gaze of men, and in one soaring instance, Charlotte realizes: “I might do anything, I might take off all my clothes and run about screaming and scarred and Mrs. Webber [Ruth] would not blink at it.” Judgment is gone; the only decree is to fight as hard as you can. Sound familiar?
In one holy moment, The Fair Fight becomes the female version of Fight Club. The women slam with their fists and by doing so find an outward manifestation of their anger; internal anger has been their living salvation, propelling them through unbearable lives. In fighting, it finally finds an outlet.
The Fair Fight’s ability to take women’s anger and craft it into an enjoyable story is a new type of novel. And it doesn’t stop there. Charlotte and Ruth do not live out the rest of their days in unabated misery, reaping the “sins” of their anger. Each woman goes on to deal with the hand she’s been dealt, figuring out what’s best for herself and her situation.
There are precious few stories about women finding an outlet for their anger without the women dying or being maimed (physically or emotionally) for their rage. The Fair Fight fills this unused story space with fun banter and curious characters. Ruth, George, and Charlotte each have their own vernacular and their own particular way of looking at the world. Threading the three together, each having different viewpoints on what happened in any given situation, makes for a delightful read. But The Fair Fight is also a hopeful story because it ultimately points to the saving grace of love between friends, lovers, and the redemption of loving oneself. It’s a fairytale of the most curious boxing kind and a perfect springtime read.