Normally when I love a book, I inhale it, reading it so quickly that it’s gone before I realize how much I should cherish this unique experience of reading it for the first time. It took me a little longer than normal to read The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, enough that I started to savour it. Each brief, cleverly-named chapter was a small episode in the life of Nouschka Tremblay. And it was perfect, for I did indeed love this book.
I loved Heather O’Neill’s first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals. I read it the summer I first joined Goodreads, and it was my second favourite book of the year. Now The Girl Who Was Saturday Night will be joining it on my favourites shelf, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it makes an appearance on this year’s best 10 books. Because Heather O’Neill has done it again: she’s bottled lightning twice.
Whereas Baby, the protagonist from Lullabies for Little Criminals, was just on the cusp of adolescence, Nouschka is just on the cusp of adulthood. Nineteen turning twenty, she should be independent or nearly so. But she is anchored to this small, impoverished, impersonal yet intimate Montréal street through her twin brother and her grandfather. Her identity is boxed in by the tabloids and documentarians who recall the days she spent appearing on TV with her chansonnier father, Étienne. Her need to make a connection lands her with the most outrageous husband and a marriage that is properly bizarre for fiction but likely accurate for real life.
It’s this way that O’Neill captures the bizarre layers of our life almost photorealistically that appeals to me. She depicts the struggles that Nouschka faces, but unlike many novelists, she does not glamourize or even dwell on them. There’s a latent current of humour running throughout the book (so many cats, so much Anglo-bashing!), but there are also moments of quiet seriousness. O’Neill neither makes light of Nouschka’s troubles nor exaggerates them; they simply are, and it’s the people and circumstances in her life that are absurd by comparison.
Many of the characters in this book are also studies in how to write a sympathetic but unlikable character. Nouschka herself arguably falls into this category (though I like her!). Raphael is the prime example. He has a tragic quality; I can see why Nouschka was drawn to him. She’s smart enough to realize that she can’t actually fix him, and that she has to leave him at some point—but she’s also enough in love with him to go along with his craziness just slightly more than another person might. Ultimately, O’Neill uses Nouschka to do what most people refuse to do: interact with the person suffering from a serious mental illness instead of trying to interact with their condition.
These issues of identity, and identity politics, suffuse the novel. The story takes place during the second Québec referendum (1995), and Nouschka gives us a very Québécois perspective on something that many Canadians will only be familiar with through the lens of news media. Though The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is “CanLit” that ended up being shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, it certainly feels less like a Canadian novel and more like a Québécois novel (not that I have much experience with those). Despite the novel being in English, it’s implied that the characters speak and think primarily in French. By playing with the language in this twisted way, O’Neill gets to have some fun meditating on the different ways French- and English-speaking Canadians think and act.
O’Neill just depicts everything with such a beautiful sensitivity. She doesn’t sugar-coat things, but she also puts that sympathetic light on people like Nicolas and Nouschka and even Raphael, who might otherwise seem like jerks and assholes for the way they act. You want things to work out for these people. I agreed with Loulou when he tried to stop Nouschka from marrying Raphael, and I knew it wouldn’t work out well—but I couldn’t stop myself from hoping that maybe I would be wrong, maybe something would work out. In the end what happens is what happens so often in real life—something stupid and tragic and irrevocable, but also something you have no choice but to move on from and keep on living afterwards. Unlike a story, life does not always end after tragedy—and it’s that weird, anticlimactic part of life that O’Neill captures here. Whether it’s the day after the province voted “Non” or the day after something else, life goes on … just always different from before.
In the end the story is nothing super special. It’s the consummate storytelling skill that transforms The Girl Who Was Saturday Night into something far more sublime and amazing. I can understand how some could feel that O’Neill overdoes the similes or the asides (but you ain’t seen nothing if you think this is overdone). For me, though, the prose is a perfect alchemical mix of description that leads to introspection. This is a quiet novel, a slow novel, and a wonderful novel. If I didn’t already own it, I’d want to take it home with me and put it on my shelf. Considered altogether, it’s just a lovely package of story and character and craft: the exhilaration of anguish and terrible foreboding of joy.