‘The Girl Who Was Saturday Night’ by Heather O’Neill

The-girl-who-was-saturday-night

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.

Colourful characters

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.

And:

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.

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14 thoughts on “‘The Girl Who Was Saturday Night’ by Heather O’Neill

  1. Hmm, this doesn’t sound like a Giller winner to me. Maybe they’re going in for ‘encouragement’ shortlistings, the way the Miles Franklin crowd seem lately to be doing?

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    • I know Kevin was disappointed by the lack of A-list authors on the longlist, but I quite like “underdogs” (for want of a better word) being listed, because it can introduce you to overlooked writers or ones you’ve never heard of before. Let’s be honest, these prizes are marketing exercises, designed to boost sales, and many A-listers don’t need that kind of “lift” as much as younger / less-established writers.

      As for this book, I would have read it anyway, seeing as I liked her first novel. It’s nothing exceptional, though, so I’d be surprised if it makes the cut, much less wins the prize, but am glad to have read it.

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      • Hmm, I don’t know about the Giller Prize because I don’t know anything about its origins, but I know for sure from reading Jill Roe’s bio that the Miles Franklin was never intended to be a marketing exercise. It was set up by MF to encourage authors to write about Australian life at a time when the Australian literary scene was dominated by Britain. She was also explicit about the criteria being excellence, not worthiness or encouragement. Of course things have changed, but for me, I think the nation’s major prize ought to support our very best writers financially so that they can write more, and leave the encouragement lists to the premier’s awards. After all, in Australia, the size of the A-list market is very small, and with the exception of Winton, sales are rarely enough to support the authors to be full-time writers.
        If the Giller abandons its A-list authors, how are international readers going to know who they are?

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  2. Hi Lisa: Your comment moved me to check out Giller winners since 2000 — I was somewhat surprised to discover that exactly half of the 14 winners would not have qualified if the Giller had Miles Franklin-like criteria, since they had no Canadian content at all. Well, that is a bit of stretch — a couple of the seven “non-Canadian” ones did have Canadian references but not much more.

    Indeed, one of my own impressions of the Giller is how much it has done to showcase authors whose “Canadian” connection stretches back one generation (or less) — Rohinton Mistry, Esi Edugyan, M. G. Vassanji and Michael Ondaatje are just a few examples of winners who fit that criterion.

    Having said that, all prize juries have their own “politics”. Last year’s Real Giller jury left Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda off the shortlist. The Shadow Jury “called it in” and it was our unanimous winner. Perhaps more important for sales, Canada’s largest bookseller — Indigo — took out a full page ad lamenting its exclusion from the shortlist. I believed then (and continue to believe) that one juror (c’mon down, Margaret Atwood) was nationalist enough in her opposition to the Penguin/Random House merger that she was determined the Prize wouldn’t go to one of their authors (Random House publishes Boyden).

    Then again, if we didn’t find reason to be grumpy about juries, why would we follow prizes at all? 🙂

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  3. I’m not entirely sure I know who Canada’s A-list are to be honest (Munro, Mistry?) and of the books published this year I’d suspect only Margaret Atwood (and possibly Anne-Marie MacDonald) falls into that camp, being equally as well known internationally as she is in Canada.
    I suspect that within Canada David Adams Richards and Michael Crummey are pretty big names and I would have put both their novels on my own longlist this year because I think they are both very fine books. Of those that are on the longlist I’d say O’Neill, Bezmozgis, Itani, Mootoo and Toews are hardly unknown.
    Looking at the longlisted books there does seem to be a leaning towards books with urban and/or immigrant themes and settings, and a conscious avoidance of the more traditional CanLit territory of coastal villages and islands and blokes with guns in the woods (which is possibly why Richards and Crummey aren’t there, nor Alexi Zentner, though I didn’t rate ‘The Lobster Kings’ anywhere near as highly as Kevin did). I do think as a result they’ve missed some great books (I thought both Susan Downe’s ‘Juanita Wildrose’ and Richard Wagamese’s ‘Medicine Walk’ for example were stronger than the three longlisters I’ve so far read) but then I nearly always think that about any prize list!

    Anyway, back to ‘The Girl Who Was Saturday Night’… it sounds fairly interesting, but probably one I’ll only read if it makes the shortlist. I’ll likely be reading either ‘The Betrayers’ or ‘Tell’ next (I’ve very much enjoyed the three Itani books I’ve read before so am looking forward to the new one).

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    • I guess I would class A-listers as those authors with an international reputation, so definitely Atwood, Munro & Mistry. But I don’t read enough Canadian literature or follow the new releases to watch to suggest other names outside of the “known” stars. It’s bad enough trying to keep up with what’s happening in Australia… 🙂

      As for The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, it’s going to be intriguing to see whether it makes the cut or not. Having only read one other book on the list, it’s too early for me to tell what the overall standard of the work is, but I wouldn’t describe this book as “exceptional”. If I was going to go back to my old ratings system, I’d probably give this one three stars.

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  4. Pingback: 2014 Giller Prize shortlist | KevinfromCanada

  5. I finished this one last week and, like you, felt so much fonder about it when I sat down to write my thoughts last night. I agree, the novel could have benefited from editing as it tends to drag along in places, but I really loved Noushka and couldn’t help but root for her.

    Will be interesting to see if this one wins. Of the shortlist, I’ve only read O’Neill’s and Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors, but there’s something about these two books that remind me of each other so I can see how they would both make the shortlist over Rivka Galchen’ American Innovations.

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    • I’m yet to read the Sean Michael’s book: the online indie shop I bought it from lost my order and I’m waiting for a replacement to arrive. Have read but not yet reviewed the Viswanathan, which I thought a bit disjointed, and am now about 100 pages into the Itani, which I’m liking a lot.

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      • I’ve heard very mixed reactions to the Viswanathan so I’m looking forward to your review. The Itani caught my eye immediately but, unfortunately, it will not be published in the US until January 2015.

        Hope your copy of Michael’s book arrives soon. I recommend watching a video or two of someone playing the theremin before you begin. Helped my enjoyment of the novel immensely.

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  6. Pingback: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill | Ardent Reader

  7. Pingback: Five Fast Reviews: Heinrich Böll, Patrick DeWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist and Heather O’Neill | Reading Matters

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