I’m not sure how I managed to miss Heather O’Neill’s first novel – probably a case of so many books so little time – but The Girl who was Saturday Night snagged my attention when flipping through publishers’ catalogues choosing books for my Books to Look Out For in May post, or rather posts as there were far too many goodies to cram into just one. Set in 1994 against the backdrop of the Québécois separation referendum, it’s about nineteen-year-old Nouschka and Nicolas Tremblay, the twins of washed-up folk singer/national treasure, Étienne, raised by their grandfather in a dodgy area of Montreal and dragged into the limelight as cute seven-year-olds when their father’s star was at its height. Étienne is a man of colossal ego with a penchant for fourteen-year-old girls one of whom conceived the twins on a one night stand, leaving them with their paternal grandparents when they were born. Both suffer from chronic motherlessness – Nouschka happy to go home with anyone for the night, Nicolas engaged in a career of attention-seeking behaviour and crime so petty that he holds up a librarian for the fines she’s collected that day. Life is chaotic: they both love and hate each other, scrapping viciously then turning to each other for comfort. When Nouschka falls in love with failed figure skater Raphaël, even more disturbed than her brother, she thinks she’s finally brought about her own separation but things are not so simple. Throughout it all a film crew documenting the life of Étienne, still a Québécois legend, pops up catapulting Nouschka, Nicolas and Raphaël into the tabloids.
Narrated by Nouschka who ‘always ended up in the middle of some festive waste of time’, the novel is peppered with sharply witty phrases: her grandfather’s ‘memory was a shelf in a junk shop with things that should have been thrown out’; ‘When love takes off its clothes and has a drink. It sometimes takes the most appalling forms’. Her voice is world weary, a layer of shellac covering shaky fragility which slowly softens as the novel progresses and Nouschka finds her way to some sort normality. There are touches of whimsy – a bird ‘bursts off the pattern’ of a shaken carpet and flies away, one of the many, many cats slips ‘into a mirror’ and disappears – but this is far from a whimsical novel. It’s about fame and its fallout, parenting and irresponsibility, love and dependency. Hard to sum it up in a few words – what begins as a rambunctious, party girl’s story ends in quiet hope with a riotous ride in between.