Reviewed by Victoria Best
I firmly believe you can never dismiss any genre of book or any particular fictional setting as not your cup of tea, because written the right way, everything becomes appealing. If you’d asked me whether I was immediately drawn to a novel about crazy adolescent twins growing up in the poor French quarter of Montréal, I might well have hesitated. But in Heather O’Neill’s glorious version of coming-of-age downtown, I found more laughter, insight and enchantment than in a dozen books with self-consciously glamorous contexts. This is a novel that’s all about the voice, and the voice is delightful.
It is 1996 and the mood in Montréal is rebellious; once again there’s talk of separation and a referendum is approaching. Also trying to make a decisive break away from the past is Nouschka Tremblay, a 19-year-old former wild child who now wants nothing more than a steady passage through night school. She’ll have to fight her twin for it, though; she and Nicolas have lived without boundaries since they were born, sleeping together, skipping school together, seeking out ever more ridiculous and lawless ways to have fun. They were brought up by their grandfather, Loulou, the products of their famous father’s liaison with a fan. Étienne, a cult folk singer believed that ‘Domestic life took down people quicker than the bubonic plague.’ And so he spun some fairy tale about their mother, who he immortalised in a few wholly fictional songs, and carried on with his own life. Except, of course, when he could use his cute offspring at live appearances and on talk shows to bolster his own image. The twins still live with the vestiges of their child star fame, but they are as ragged and tatty as Loulou’s flat. The money dried up years ago.
Nicolas is still happy with a feckless life of petty crime and he doesn’t understand why Nouschka wants to get serious. But she is the one who realises that their downhill trajectory isn’t going to look so entertaining in the years to come. The artificial aura of the spotlight has been the only warmth to nurture them, and Nouschka is aware that it has made them infamous in their quarter and yet unknown.
What we needed was a love that was able to shine a light on who exactly we were, so that we could be people offstage. Then we would be able to be real. Then we would be able to grow up.
Nouschka wonders whether she might find that love with the handsome, damaged Raphael, an ex-child-prodigy whose young adult life is as mixed up and close to the knife-edge as her own has been. They come together in the hope that two wrongs might make a right, and have to learn the hard way that they don’t. The core of this novel is about what love can and cannot do, how its powers of transformation can only be accessed in certain ways and how its powers of prevention are much smaller than we like to think. But this comes within the context of a narrative that shimmers with affection for all its lost souls and their shabby circumstances.
I’m not sure I’ve ever read such an entertaining and funny account about living on the wrong side of the tracks, nor such vividly beautiful descriptions of poverty. ‘Up above the all the stores were cheap apartments,’ Nouschka tells us. ‘All the blue lights from the television sets. As if the inhabitants were up late, being visited by the Virgin Mary.’ Nouschka’s immense tenderness for the place she was brought up is scattered with bits of wry wisdom: ‘If you lived a certain way downtown you could get away without having one of your own thoughts for weeks,’ she admits. And Heather O’Neill brilliantly brings together Nouschka’s own sense of impending loss on the edge of an extended childhood, with a minority culture’s sense of its imminent disappearance. A time in history collides with the end of a personal era:
[The English] were actually proving to me, at least, what I had always known: that we were a minority that was in danger of being overwhelmed. Our culture could disappear and all that would be left of it would be little French-Canadian bobble-head dolls dressed in lumberjack shirts next to the polar bear clocks in the tourist shops.
The sparkle that O’Neill’s prose can bring to any situation must account for the feel of magic realism that pervades the pages of this novel, without anything properly magical actually happening. I think it must be a spell she whips together, one-part joy of the absurd, one-part delight taken in cheap but redolent kitsch, to three-parts irrepressible confidence of youth in future possibilities. Watch out for the cats who creep and pounce and curl through its pages; they are the zany avatars of her gentle magic. This is such a happy version of a sad story, and its end is, as you might expect, as uplifting and hopeful as Nouschka herself.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Heather O’Neill, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (Quercus, May 2014) 978-1849163323, 416 pages, paperback.