Featherweight by Mick Kitson

Reviewed by Lory Widmer Hess

“A woman has to fight sometimes. It’s as well ya know how.”

Annie Loveridge is a fighting woman, and no mistake. Helpless to protest as a girl when her impoverished Romi family sells her to an aging prizefighter, beset by taunting bullies in her young womanhood, she learns the skill of pugilism and becomes somewhat notorious, performing for show but also in earnest against serious foes. 

In nineteenth-century England, in the industrial Midlands, this doesn’t mean just human opponents. Ignorance, exploitation, class divisions, the rich grinding the poor into the dust for profit: these are Annie’s adversaries, and those of her family and loved ones. A female fighter, smart and canny in her own defense, could be an inspiration to the downtrodden then, and even to us today.

Featherweight is an odd mixture in tone, all grit and blood at times, as in the blow-by-blow narration of Annie’s fights. At other times it’s as sweet and fluffy as a meringue pie, with a love-at-first-sight romance that holds absolutely no tension. This sweetness also applies to Annie’s relationship with the man who bought her – one might have expected something more sinister there, but he seems to truly cherish her as a daughter. Adding to the sentimental trope, his slow slide into drunkenness means their roles reverse and she ends up trying to protect him.

Annie’s voice was the thing I loved the most about the novel. With the rhythmic flavor of underground poetry, and the tart humor of society’s outsiders, it brings something quite unique to a story that under the surface is not terribly unconventional. Melodrama takes over at the end, with an over-the-top denouement and a sudden escape scene that left me disappointed and underwhelmed. With such a great build-up, I could have wished for a weightier conclusion.

Another slight drawback is the third-person narration that breaks in at times. It is not clear why or how this is interpolated, since a prologue sets the scene as the whole tale being told by Annie to a servant later in her life. I kept expecting some explanation to come up for this device: another observant character? A multiple personality? But it never did, and I can only assume that the author just wanted to change things up a bit. 

Still, in spite of these odd narrative jolts, and the loss of momentum as it went along, the fighting spirit of Featherweight and its heroine will remain with me. Most memorably, Annie compared the skill of boxing to that of reading – and though I’m unlikely ever to land a punch, I can aspire to undertake my battles of the spirit with equal grit and determination. “A woman has to fight sometimes,” after all.

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Lory Widmer Hess blogs about life, language, and literature at Entering the Enchanted Castle.

Mick Kitson, Featherweight (Canongate, 2021). 978-1838851910, 304pp., hardback.

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