As in her debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, Heather O’Neill turns to the streets of Montreal in The Girl Who was Saturday Night, once again portraying a young female dreamer, here living in the beautifully gritty Boulevard Saint-Laurent. Nouschka Tremblay and her twin brother Nicolas are beautiful, promiscuous and totally unstable nineteen year olds trying to adjust to normal life despite the tabloid surveillance they are subjected to as the children of locally celebrated folk-singer Etienne Tremblay. Exploited by their father, Nouschka and Nicolas were used as nothing more than props in Etienne’s shows, reading scripts and performing for the audience. Through this means, they became emblems of a separatist Quebec which never came to be, leaving them as “animals whose habitats have been destroyed.”
Resonant in part because it was released the same year as the Scottish independence referendum took place, the novel romanticises a separatist Quebec, with many of the main characters voicing their hatred for English speakers. This scenario is complicated by the novel being written in English, as well as the predominance of English dialogue, with only a few lines written in French, the official language of the province. The inclusion of French dialogue, however, distances the reader, disassociating them from the central characters, a distance breached only by Nouschka’s first person narration, which involves the reader personally in her story. This inconsistency of language throughout the narrative indicates a certain fickleness in O’Neill’s writing, which may be accredited to a desire for accessibility for the reader.
As our narrator, Nouschka’s voice is poetic and surreal. Less absurd than her father’s lyrics, it resonates like a child’s dream. From the tree blossoms in the park being “polka-dots fallen from a woman’s dress” to a t-shirt with horses on it where “when you put your head to the woman’s chest you can hear galloping”, Nouschka’s imagery is both magical and innocent. Every cat in the novel, like the illustrations at the beginning of the chapters, is given a name and charming description to match, such as the beige cat coming down the stairs “like caramel seeping out of a Caramilk bar”. These felines saturate the story so that “it was hard to have a memory without at least one cat in it.”
These homeless feline wanderers parading the streets soon come to represent the Quebecois teenagers and the province itself. The twins, like the cats, and Quebec herself, were abandoned by their mother: they are inscribed with identities by others, and so struggle to assert their own individual personalities, leaving them unstable. This sense of abandonment and lack of identity permeates all of O’Neill’s characters, which results in them developing realistic familial situations and emotions. Abandoned by their mother at birth, Nicolas and Nouschka are left to construct their own identities, but with no stable family to support them they must rely on each other to the point where they assume one shared identity from which Nouschka attempts to break free. She, like Quebec, tries to construct her own separate identity in order to gain her independence: she attends night school, becomes an accidental beauty queen and marries a handsome schizophrenic. Nouschka loves everyone, and Nicolas hates everyone. He, in a horrific repetition of paternal irresponsibility, has a son whom he is financially and emotionally unable to take care of, despite his desire to be a good father.
The plot may be thin, the chapters short, episodic and, as a result, contributing little to advance the plot, but O’Neill’s novel is not driven by its action. Overall, the novel is character based, glamorously alluring in its grime and mental instability. The descriptions are wild, witty and charming, like a surrealist dream. A literary equivalent to Vladimir Kush: O’Neill paints with words.