The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is Heather O’Neill’s second novel, and it is the book where she emerges as a fully-formed artist. Nouschka and Nicolas Tremblay are 19-year-old twins when the novel opens, living in a heady Montreal in 1995. They live in a gloriously squalid apartment on St. Laurent with their grandfather, Loulou, who raised them. Their folk-singer father Etienne Tremblay, with whom Nouschka and Nicolas performed in childhood, has rutted away the fame that his nonsense-filled, separatist-aligning songs had earned him. After time in prison, he isn’t around much any more, and their mother has been gone since their birth.
Like most twins, Petite Nouschka and Petit Nicolas have an uncommonly intense psychic bond. Unlike most twins, the intimacy of sharing a womb seems to have given them a sort of blurred distinction between their bodies, and at the age of 19 they still sleep in the same bed. There is always a veering sexuality to their interactions, but they are so elemental with one another that it becomes difficult to remember the connotations of potential incest.
However, the will to form a distinct identity is a strong current through the book, and the looming referendum in Quebec is no quiet parallel. As the province prepares to register either a “oui” or a “non,” Nouschka too slowly untangles herself from Nicolas.
This time around, O’Neill’s Montreal feels like the St. Petersburg Raskolnikov inhabits, with characters ducking in and out of seedy bars and apartments (but with more sex, of course). The overall landscape she paints feels a bit more grounded than the one in her first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals. It’s less precious while still reveling in O’Neill’s signature playful language – there’s a hint of the incredible Robert Walser in the serpentine, acrobatic use of words, mixing the common and the sublime:
“Loulou was in the kitchen wearing an old suit jacket over an undershirt. He had fixed a hole in the sleeve of the jacket with a staple gun. He wasn’t wearing any pants. His undershirt was tucked into his boxer shorts, which were covered with little golden paisleys. They looked like goldfish that were all dressed up for church. He was always crapping his pants, so he stopped wearing them at home. It just made life easier. He crapped his pants every time he smoked a cigarette.”
It’s these gross details that really make The Girl Who Was Saturday Night sing, peppered in generously with all the redolent, romantic parties and trysts that set the novel aflame.
The relationship you have with your progenitors can be tricky; observing genetic traits and tendencies in yourself that may be undesirable in family members can cause an identity crisis in anyone. Nouschka bears the legacies of her grandfather, her father, and her brother. When she has to her consider place in this line of Tremblays, she vows to be different. As the referendum wears on, Nouschka pulls hard to be different. And she is, but not entirely. She still is a Tremblay, after all.
We tell stories to understand life, to create something to relate to and to have as reference. Nouschka’s life’s stories are largely handed to her, by the media, her family, her province, her history. They are embedded in the languages she speaks. Her success is, as the best successes are, a series of beautiful failures, and from them she begins to have a story of her own.
Lauren Bride reviews young-adult fiction for The Globe and Mail.
A previous version of this review incorrectly referred to Heather O'Neill's first book as Lullabies for Criminals. It is in fact Lullabies for Little Criminals.