Culture & Conversation

A Saturday night to remember

Heather O'Neil publicity shot

Heather O’Neil publicity shot

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill, Harper-Collins

Fans of Heather O’Neill’s best-selling Lullabies for Little Criminals have been waiting eight years for her second novel. As O’Neill acknowledged at a well-attended Montreal launch, she was anxious about writing the follow-up, wondering how she could compete with the stunning success of her first novel.

Ensconced in a beautifully rendered version of Montreal in all its grit and glamour, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night revisits familiar territory (it’s set across the street from Lullabies), but pushes in new directions as the beguiling young protagonist tries to overcome the odds stacked against her.

Twins Nouschka and Nicolas are the children of washed-up Québécois folk singer Étienne Tremblay. Thanks to their father’s fame, the precocious pair became child stars and minor Quebec celebrities. Now, however, they are 19, and their lives are a pale version of their former glory, their father having largely abandoned them after he stopped receiving invitations to appear on talk shows. “It had been drilled into our heads that we were extraordinary,” says Nouschka. “But it wasn’t really true. We were only as extraordinary as the next person.”

Still recognized everywhere they go as they party away their disappointments night after night, the twins have been given plenty of leeway for their questionable behaviour over the years. Haunted by the absence of their mother, they’ve clung together and have grown scarily close, even sleeping in the same bed, and now they are uncertain if they can ever bear life apart. Nicolas is a manic, lovable scoundrel who is always coming up with a new scam to make a quick buck, while Nouschka is the more contemplative twin, an aspiring writer and scholar.

Quebec’s push for independence from Canada runs parallel to Nouschka’s attempt to free herself from Nicolas, but politics never steal the spotlight from the charismatic twins. The story is told from Nouschka’s point of view, and her wry, unsentimental, and astute voice is instantly endearing. The prose is addictively readable, delivered in short, concise chapters that go down like candy. Montreal, especially Boulevard Saint-Laurent (a street “filled with people whose dreams had gone bust”), takes a lot of space in the novel, and the spirit of the time leading up to the 1995 referendum has never been rendered with such verve, passion, and style.

O’Neill has a gift for metaphor and simile that verges on compulsion. Sometimes surprising and always precise, these rich comparisons pepper the text, as do descriptions of the neighbourhood cats that punctuate the novel. “A white cat with beige spots,” for example, “tiptoed off the bed and down the hallway, like a naked girl heading to the bathroom after she’s had sex in an unfamiliar apartment.”

Although Nouschka has many boyfriends, the real love affair at the heart of this story is that of Nouschka and Nicolas. Along with a strange sexual tension, the destructive nature of their relationship makes it like a train wreck you can’t look away from, and this provides the novel with much of its narrative tension. Given that their father is portrayed as the ultimate narcissist, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the twins follow suit, seemingly in love with themselves. Yet, for a 19-year-old, Nouschka is remarkably self-aware when it comes to her own failings: “Our whole lives, from conception onward, had been a romantic take on a narcissist’s asshole behaviour. Our lives were a fiction. I had swallowed it all.” It’s this self-awareness that pushes her, unlike Nicolas, to attempt to escape.

Occasional moments of magical realism lend a bizarre playfulness to a story that at times skirts the melodramatic. The prose is unequivocally skillful, but it’s the larger-than-life characters, their mad charm and their way of relaying the details of their messed up Montreal world that make The Girl Who Was Saturday Night such a compelling read.

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Lesley Trites is a Montreal-based freelance and fiction writer, and the author of echoic mimic.


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