Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 416 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
It’s Giller Prize season and, once again, thanks to the kind invitation of KevinfromCanada, I’m taking part in the Shadow Giller Jury for the fourth time. (You can find out more about the jury at Kevin’s blog.)
The longlist was announced last week. It featured many authors who were unfamiliar to me, but I was aware of Heather O’Neill, whose second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, was on the list. I had previously enjoyed her debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, which I read in 2008.
A Bohemian coming-of-age story
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is set in the bohemian quarter of Montreal during the 1995 Referendum. The story is told through the eyes of 19-year-old Nouschka Tremblay, whose life changes dramatically over the course of the novel: she begins night school, leaves home, marries a schizophrenic and falls pregnant. She also — rather unexpectedly — meets her long-lost mother for the first time since she was a little girl.
It is, essentially, a coming-of-age tale, but it’s not your usual run-of-the-mill one. For a start, Nouschka has an unbreakable bond with her twin brother, Nicolas, whom she loves and loathes in equal measure. The pair still live at home with the elderly grandfather, Loulou, who raised them. They even share a bed (aged 19, remember), but have spectacular yelling matches and physical punch-ups, often in public view.
The thing is that Nicolas and I were afraid to be without each other. And whenever you are dependent on someone, then you naturally start to resent them. Everybody is born with an inkling, a desire to be free.
And that desire to be free is one of the key themes of this novel: Nouschka craves it, but is also terrified by it. Despite being raised in a relatively Bohemian household and working a full-time job (in a magazine shop since leaving school aged 16), she hasn’t really grown up and is very much repressed by her father’s fame.
Her father, Etienne Tremblay, was a famous Québécois folk singer in the early 1970s with a knack for writing witty songs (apparently their humour made up for his inability to keep a tune). He took Nouschka and Nicolas on stage and television chat shows with him all the time and made them “wave wildly at the audience and blow kisses and say adorable things that he’d written”. Now, 15 years later, the twins are still recognised on the street, which keeps them unwittingly trapped in roles they should have long grown out of.
When the pair eventually meet the mother who walked out on them, Nouschka suddenly realises that the kind of fame they’ve “enjoyed” has never filled the mother-shaped hole in their lives.
Nicolas and I immediately shot a knowing, wary glance at one another. She had loved us on television. The same way that everybody had loved us, which was the same thing as not loving us at all. We had had enough of that type of affection. What we needed was a love that was able to shine a light on who exactly we were, so that we could be people offstage. Then we would be able to be real. Then we would be able to grow up. Then we wouldn’t be joined at the hip. This woman only knew what everybody else knew about us. Of course she loved our persona. It was designed to be loved.
This may partly explain why Nouschka sleeps around — often with much older men — and marries the first person her age who asks her.
Admittedly, I initially struggled to get into this story, perhaps because the characters, who are all exceptionally well drawn, felt almost too ludicrous and “unreal” to be true. But before long I got completely caught up in Nouschka’s funny little life — her dramas, her fears, her complicated relationships — and found myself warming to her, even though I didn’t always agree with the decisions she made.
Unfortunately, the narrative drags a little in places — it could easily lose 100 pages and I’m sure the story would be all the stronger for it. But I did love the backdrop of the Québécois search for a kind of freedom of their own (the irony of reading it while the Scottish Referendum was being held wasn’t lost on me), which gave the story an added depth.
The prose style, which is straightforward and “clean”, occasionally feels a little pedestrian, for want of a better word, but then O’Neill has a habit of dropping in a line or two that makes you sit up and take notice, such as:
He was running in and out of doors like a ball in a pinball machine, waking people up.
White round petals were all over the ground as if the polka dots had fallen off a woman’s dress.
Needs time to settle
I actually think this is one of those books that needs time to “settle” after you’ve read it, because in thinking about this novel (which I finished five days ago) it’s already grown fonder in my mind.
It’s very much a book about parental responsibilities and our desire to be loved by our mothers and our fathers, even if they are not present in our lives. While it is important to forge our own path in life, it’s always helpful to have parents show us the way. (Or, as Nouschka so eloquently puts it, mothers are “like North Stars that guide you when you are completely lost”.)
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night might not be an obvious prize-winner, but I admired its kookiness, its themes, and its crazy little characters. It might be depressing in places — when Nicolas loses custody of his own child there’s a very real sense of history repeating itself, for instance — but it ends on a surprisingly upbeat note, which makes one feel that Nouschka’s struggles might have been worth it after all.