COMING OF AGE IN A TIME OF UNREST: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill



The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
by Heather O’Neill
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
403 pages, $29.99


As a French-Canadian, I thought that reading The Girl Who Was Saturday Night would drive me nuts. At times it did. But my frustration had nothing to do with with cultural appropriation of voice or language issue (The characters speak in French, yet the book is written in English.) Heather O’Neill captures a people, a time, and a culture with vivid accuracy. The Québécois and the separatist ideal she relates are real to me. She invents wild yet believable characters —twins Nouschka and Nicholas Tremblay in particular— and weaves a harrowing coming-of-age plot.  When Nouschka untangles herself from her brother and his increasingly impulsive, destructive ideas and moves out of her childhood home, the world is full of uncertainties. The writer creates a mood that took me back to 1995 when I too was a 20-year-old wild child (like Nouschka), living with the looming and scary Quebec referendum (not every French-speaking Canadian supported the “oui” vote) on the horizon. Well done, O’Neill, well done.

See, I simply have a love-hate relationship with her style. Everything that is so good and so right about her storytelling gets eclipsed by an over-abundance of quirky imagery, metaphors, and similes. They appear on every page. Granted some result in brilliant passages, like this one:

“Love is like this small room where a child brings you to show you all their treasures. First the child shows you all the new toys that are bright and shiny and top of the line. But then she shows you all the stuff that he ended up at the bottom of the trunk. There are dolls with eyes that wobble, hair that is falling out of their heads, and dirt behind their ears… It has been so long since they have been held or anyone has told them that they are lovely. They lie at the bottom of the toy chest, hidden and ashamed. You are either going to be disgusted by them, or you are going to be so filled with love for them that your heart almost breaks.”

That is how Nouschka sees the world. Her first-person account is coloured with childhood-themed imaginings tainted by adult realities. These touches reflect the protagonist well as she struggles to leave her past and her childhood behind.

But at other times, I find these touches distracting. They are so numerous and far-reaching that they often take me out of the story. For instance, O’Neill adds random cats into the narrative —cats that come in and out of the Tremblay home—  to mirror the characters’ wild, bohemian lifestyle. Cool idea, but the story is over-wrought with similes like this:

Nouschka crawled into her apartment, through the window, “while a cat with beige spots that [she]’d never seen before tip-toed off the bed and down the hallway, like a naked girl heading to the bathroom after she’d had sex in an unfamiliar apartment.”

Nicolas sprawls on the couch while a “calico cat was sleeping on its back, like a girl in grey stockings with her skirt pulled up over her hips.”

O’Neill does the same with roses. Perhaps she adds rose imagery to everything —like sheets, tattoos, toilet paper, wallpaper— because it’s a symbol of the separatist movement. Perhaps it’s reminiscent of a fitting, well-known French song about dreamers: “La vie en rose” by Édith Piaf. It’s just too rich at times.

I find these tricks work best when they are more subtle and less frequent. I realise that these very details make readers fall in love with Heather O’Neill’s novels. When I start anticipating upcoming similes, I get pulled out of the narrative. That’s unfortunate, especially when otherwise fascinated by the unravelling of Nouschka and the eccentric Tremblay family.

For a more plot-focused review of this 2014 Giller shortlisted novel, check out Reeder Reads. For another French-Canadian’s take on the novel, check out Sylvie’s World is a Library.


7 thoughts on “COMING OF AGE IN A TIME OF UNREST: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

  1. I would like to read this book just for the setting, especially since you say she did a terrific job with it. I have never read a book set during the time of the Quebec referendum. However, since I have owned her first novel for a while now, I feel like I should read that one first. Have you read it?

    • Carole Besharah says:

      In my opinion, Lullabies for Little Criminals was even better than O’Neill’s sophomore novel. My heart just broken in a million pieces for Baby –the 13-year-old heroine. She writes both novel in using the same style. If you are into tons of description and a highly poetic style (and are not allergic to similes), you might just love both books.

  2. I loved reading your review, Carole! I’m glad that it represented that time accurately – I think that’s very important. I love all the quotes you showed us here too; your perspectives are well-argued and I can definitely see where you’re coming from. I absolutely loved this book and I hope more people get the chance to read it and enjoy it too 🙂

    • Carole Besharah says:

      It is a good novel, for sure. Worth the read. It’s just a bit too heavy on the descriptions/similes for my taste. I truly wish that I didn’t get so easily distracted by writers’ style. Thanks for reading, Karen.

  3. So many cats! I thought that got heavy-handed too but I did enjoy this book. I think “Lullabies for Little Criminals” was better but more upsetting, due to Baby’s age, I think. I cared what happened to Nouschka but I didn’t feel quite as anxious because she was an adult and making her own decisions. As a West Coaster who was in elementary school during the referendum, I did find that part really interesting. There’s not much out there from the fictional POV, as far as I know so I like that O’Neill is filling that Canadian gap.

    • Carole Besharah says:

      Don’t get me wrong, I did like this story too. Its subject matter and setting was great. The poetic language was just too rich at times. But, that’s O’Neill’s style and that’s what many readers like about her writing.

      I agree that Baby –being so young and often powerless– broke my heart in a way than the story of Nouschka didn’t. Nouschka was an adult, after all, and she made her choices willingly.

      Thanks for reading, Karissa.

  4. Great review. I read Lullabies for Little Criminals earlier this year and this has been on my wishlist ever since, so hopefully I’ll get round to reading it soon.
    Thanks for visiting ahouseofbooks!

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