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Heather O’Neill: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

Nouschka Tremblay is nineteen when this novel starts. She lives in Montreal with her twin brother, Nicolas, and her paternal grandfather, known to everyone one as Loulou, as his mother realised, about five minutes after she had christened him, that Léonard was not a suitable name. As we soon discover, her father is Etienne Tremblay. Etienne is or, rather, had been, a famous folksinger, famous at least in Quebec but not known elsewhere. He is actually rather a bad singer but his lyrics and songs are clever and witty and have appealed to many Quebecois, so that he had considerable success. One day, while out touring away from Montreal, he reluctantly went to a party. He would normally avoid parties but there was nothing else to do. He saw an attractive young woman and persuaded her to accompany him to a bedroom, where he had unprotected sex with her. He realised that this was a bad mistake. Indeed, she became pregnant with Nouschka and Nicolas. Unfortunately for all parties, she was only fourteen. The children were handed to the care of Etienne’s parents (his mother died five years afterwards), Etienne went to prison for eight months and Lily Sainte-Marie, the mother, was spirited away and Nouschka and Nicolas have not seen or heard of her since. With Etienne entirely focussed on his career, they have generally only seem him when he wanted to use them as props for his career, as well as his regular appearances on their birthdays, with terrible presents.

Loulou is deaf so has little idea of what goes on in his house. He has made a precarious living as a scrap merchant dealer but carrying heavy fridges has taken its toll. Nicolas and Nouschka sleep in the same bed (no, there is no incest) and have always been close, some would say too close. Not till they started dating, did they start behaving differently. Now they do disagree and, indeed, sometimes fight, occasionally quite violently. Both have dropped out of school though, at the beginning of the novel, Nouschka has signed up for night school (she has a day job in a newsagent’s). Nicolas was meant to join her but he did not turn up. He makes his living primarily from petty crime and is continually in trouble with the police. (Being a criminal was an obvious job option for someone during the recession. It paid about as much as working the cash register at a bakery).

Both brother and sister have a colourful sex life and are highly critical of the other’s sex life. Nicolas has been dating Saskia for some time and they have broken it off many times, only to get back together. The last time they got back together was when she found she was pregnant. She had a son, Pierrot, but naturally Nicolas has not been able to pay child support, a source of some contention. Moreover, Pierrot does not seem to like his father and is reluctant to spend time with him. Nicolas has a best friend, Adam. Unlike Nicolas and Nouschka, Adam is anglophone and from a well-off family. He does speak good French. Indeed, Nouschka points out that his French is probably far more grammatically correct than theirs, though he does not know the idioms and slang. Adam is close to Nicolas but in love with Nouschka. Nouschka, who seems to be very inconsistent with her relationships, will sometimes allow him to sleep with her and, indeed, seems to be very willing to do so but, at other times, rejects him totally. She has casual sex with others, particularly with Misha, an overweight, older man, whom everyone else considers to be totally unattractive. He, too, is in love with her. She enjoys his company because he is very funny and seems to be happy to give him oral sex now and then. She is really in love with Raphaël Lemieux, a man who had spent time in an institute for the criminally insane for jumping off the Jacques Cartier Bridge, which he amazingly survived. During the course of the book, he will be arrested for having over a hundred dogs in his house. In short, as she says, she always have to have a boyfriend.

During the course of the book, she will get back into the public eye when she reluctantly becomes the beauty queen for a religious parade. This not only brings attention from various people, including Raphaël Lemieux and a man who wants to make a documentary about the family (there had been a successful one some years ago), it makes the front page of the papers. Etienne’s career has not gone well, though his various brushes with the law, including his eight months in prison for having sex with an underaged girl, did not affect his popularity. Étienne was as famous for his fall as he was for his songs. There were articles in all the magazines about how Étienne was living in a rooming house on Rue Saint-Dominique and had lunch each day at la Mission in Vieux Montréal. Nobody could believe how broke he was. It was almost miraculous. Meanwhile Nicolas tracks down their mother.

Nicolas, Loulou and Etienne are all convinced separatists and the issue of Quebec separatism comes up frequently, though they are realistic enough to accept that it is probably not going to happen. (Back in the seventies, Étienne thought that if Québec separated from Canada, it would infuse his career with new life. He thought that he would be able to write the new national anthem.) One of the plot threads is the build-up to the vote on separatism in 1995, which the separatists lost by 1.4%. Most of the major characters in this book are very much for separatism. However, they are also critical of the French. “You’re mistaking happiness for unhappiness. That’s why the French are so melancholic. Everything beautiful makes them cry. They invented existentialism as an excuse not to love their wives.” “I thought it was because one of them was upset about not making the soccer team.”

Much of the second part of the book concerns Raphaël and Nouschka. He proposes and she accepts. Even before the marriage, she realises that she is making a big mistake. Everything I knew about marriage pointed to it being a horrible, hateful endeavour. And if there were any two people who would be incapable of a stable marriage, it had to be Raphaël and me. It felt like I was doing something terrible when I said oui. Nicolas reacts badly and, for the first time, she is spending time away from him. Raphaël takes her out to the country, something she does not welcome but accepts, and has her involved with bikers, dog breeding and lion taming. It can only go badly. There hasn’t been a relationship that worked out on this street since 1973.

As a portrait of what we might call the rougher end of Quebec society, this is certainly a fascinating story, not least because it is written in English about people who speak French, struggle with English and hate everything to do with English speakers. The twin relationship is not unique to modern literature but O’Neill makes it interesting, partially as it is as close to incest as you can get without actually being incest. Every character is colourful, whether for their mental health issues, criminal activities or casual and often risky approach to life. This is not the side of Montreal you will see as a tourist – at least I did not on my visits there – but it makes for a more readable novel than the Montreal the tourist sees.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by HarperCollins