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.