Waiting more than two months to download Heather O’Neill’s new book, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night from the library was worth the wait. I have a soft spot for Canadian authors and I enjoyed O’Neill’s debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals enormously. She writes about the grittier side of life in Montreal, Quebec through the eyes of a young teenager in her first book and a 20-year-old in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. The main character, Noushcka is the twin sister of Nicholas. They are the illegitimate children of a legendary 1970’s Québécois folksinger Étienne Tremblay and his one-night stand with a 14-year-old girl. The twins were abandoned at birth to their paternal grandparents who raised them in the rough Boulevard Saint-Laurent neighbourhood on the island in Montreal.
An English teacher would be impressed with O’Neill’s frequent and graphic use of similes and metaphors. Her descriptions of cats are sensitive and painterly, “A calico cat was sleeping on its back, like a girl in grey stockings with her skirt pulled up over her hips.” Twins Nouskcka and Nicholas were raised during their impressionable teenage years by their aging grandfather, Loulou on his own after the death of his wife. They drop out of school and despite Loulou’s best efforts they inevitably screw up.
Both twins are precocious and Noushcka in particular displays potential for rising above her circumstances. She is intelligent and is trying to earn a better education at night school so she can become a writer. Predictably, they hang around with the wrong people and get into trouble as a result of being irresponsible and emotionally immature. Like many twins, they share a special psychic bond and feel lost and diminished without the physical presence of the other twin. Emotionally immature Noushcka vacillates between displays of childishness and mature assessment.
As the children of an absentee father who is also a confirmed Separatist, both Noushcka and Nicholas have a strong interest in the political climate in Quebec. The fact that they have hardly ventured further than a few kilometers from their Boulevard Saint-Laurent neighbourhood helps explain their lack of perspective and their naivety. This aspect of their personalities reminded me of people I’ve met in the southern United States known as “crackers” who have often never set foot beyond 15 miles of where they were born. These people have a rather peculiar and innocent lack of knowledge and understanding about how real life functions beyond the confines of their own small community.
The narrative of the book reminded me of two movies I rather enjoyed. In Blue Valentine with Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, the lead characters fall into the same destructive behavioural patterns as Noushcka and Nicholas. The same fate awaited Drew Barrymore’s character in Riding in Cars With Boys.
The ending in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night caught me a bit off-guard but I’m not going to spoil it. You’ll have to read it and draw your own conclusions. The book is a clever, well-written description of contemporary life in a small corner of Montreal. I’d give it 8 out 10.