Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Heather O'Neill, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘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.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canada, Fiction, historical fiction, House of Anansi Press, literary fiction, Louis Hamelin, Publisher, Setting

‘October 1970’ by Louis Hamelin

October-1970

Fiction – ePub edition; House of Anansi Press; 632 pages; 2013. Translated from the French by Wayne Grady.

Of all the books on this year’s Giller Prize longlist, Louis Hamelin’s October 1970 immediately piqued my interest. That was mainly for two reasons: (1) I’m attracted to real life historical events, especially if they involve politics and crime, that are turned into fiction; and (2) I knew absolutely nothing about this period of Canadian history and thought it sounded fascinating.

But reading this book proved to be somewhat of a challenge and my dislike for it may say more about me (and my lack of knowledge about Canadian political history) than the author. In other words, don’t let my review put you off — especially if you are Canadian and have a better understanding of what actually happened during the October Crisis.

The October Crisis

For those of you who aren’t aware of events that form the hub of this novel, this short article in The Canadian Encyclopedia gives a quick rundown.

Essentially, the terrorist group Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped the British trade commissioner,  James Cross (renamed John Travers in this book), from his home in Montreal on 5 October 1970. They also kidnapped — and later killed — a government minister, Pierre Laporte. During the crisis mobile forces of the Canadian Army intervened in Quebec and the federal government instigated the War Measures Act, which allowed the arrest and detainment of individuals without charge. By all accounts it was a controversial, chaotic — and frightening — time.

In early December 1970, members of the cell holding Cross were given safe passage to Cuba in exchange for his release. About a month later, members of the cell that kidnapped and murdered Laporte were caught, convicted and sent to prison.


Complicated narrative

The author takes those real life events and imagines what might have happened from the perspectives of the terrorists who carried out the kidnappings. He tells the story, not in a straightforward linear fashion, but as a series of episodic “flashbacks”, none of which are revealed in chronological order. He then frames this complicated narrative as a kind of detective story in which a freelance journalist, Sam Nihilo, investigates some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the events of that time.

As you would imagine this makes for a rather “interesting” and somewhat convoluted storyline. While the narrative essentially focuses on the events between October 5 and 17, it jumps backwards and forwards in time, and not all of it centres on October 1970; some of it goes back decades earlier to help explain the FLQ’s motivations. Furthermore, some elements are told in the first person from Sam’s point of view, while others are told in the third person. And the list of characters — secret agents, police officers, politicians, lawyers, actresses, kidnappers, hostages, fast-food delivery men and so on — is so dizzying my edition came with a three-page dramatis personæ and even then I couldn’t keep up.

What this means is that I had to hold a lot of information in my head for the narrative to make any kind of sense. But this was a rather Herculean task, and while I enjoy challenging reads, October 1970 was just a little too confusing for my liking.

Ambitious book

That said, I enjoyed following certain character’s stories and found the ties between the police and the Mob fascinating, and the level of corruption in all facets of society astonishing.

And Hamelin knows how to write easy-to-read prose, has a penchant for crafting seemingly perfect lines — “He oozed grease like a pan of bacon”; “When Mr. Chevalier suggested he run for class president, he was elected as smoothly as a letter passing through the post office”; and “They laughed at the first somewhat ambiguous lines, sucking a joke from them like juice from a lemon” — and knows how to lighten the moment with unexpected bursts of humour. He is also excellent at capturing certain moods so that you can feel the fear (or the excitement) resonate off the page.

In short, there’s no doubt that October 1970 is a big, bold and ambitious book, one that may well appeal to history buffs or those who lived through events of that era. But as a work of fiction it falls far short of what I expected, because no matter how complicated the plot or how long the cast of characters, if the narrative lacks drive or any kind of page-turning quality, what’s the point of turning it into fiction at all?