Satur­day-night SPE­CIAL

Que­bec child stars grap­ple with grow­ing up

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Kathryne Card­well

HEATHER O’Neill’s sec­ond novel will give you a good rea­son to stay in and read on a Satur­day night. O’Neill, a Mon­treal na­tive, achieved na­tional ac­claim with her 2006 de­but novel, Lul­la­bies for Lit­tle Crim­i­nals, which told the story of en­chant­ing, pre­co­cious Baby, a 12-year-old girl grow­ing up in Mon­treal’s seamy un­der­belly un­der a young, heroin-ad­dicted fa­ther. Like Lul­la­bies, The Girl Who Was Satur­day Night is also a touch­ing com­ing-of-age story that takes place in some of Mon­treal’s more colourful neigh­bour­hoods.

It’s a set­ting O’Neill knows well — she was raised on the rough side of Mon­treal and her de­tailed de­scrip­tions of the area and the people who live there are bru­tally hon­est, as well as hu­mor­ous and af­fec­tion­ate. The por­trayal of pe­riph­eral char­ac­ters may re­mind read­ers of fel­low Que­bec writer Roch Car­rier (ar­guably best known for his chil­dren’s book The Hockey Sweater). The novel opens in 1994, shortly be­fore the sec­ond Que­bec ref­er­en­dum. Nouschka Trem­blay, the nar­ra­tor, lives with her grand­fa­ther Loulou and her twin brother Ni­co­las in a squalid apart­ment on Boule­vard Saint-Lau­rent in Mon­treal. She and Ni­co­las are beau­ti­ful, charis­matic and in­sep­a­ra­ble. They are also the only chil­dren of Éti­enne Trem­blay, a fa­mous Québé­cois folksinger adored both for his hi­lar­i­ous lyrics about work­ing-class Que­be­cers and for his own phi­lan­der­ing, de­gen­er­ate life­style. The sib­lings spent their child­hoods per­form­ing on­stage with their fa­ther, and to the novel’s present day are still known to the pub­lic as Lit­tle Nouschka and Lit­tle Ni­co­las. Though the twins are now nearly 20 years old and the me­dia at­ten­tion has mostly faded, they have never re­ally grown up, and hold on to the be­lief that they are ex­cep­tional be­ings. As Nouschka ex­plains, “Éti­enne Trem­blay and his chil­dren were sup­posed to be ge­niuses who never did any­thing or­di­nary.” This be­lief is chal­lenged when Nouschka is crowned Miss Mon­treal and ap­pears in the St. Jean Bap­tiste Day pa­rade. The me­dia spot­light re­turns, bring­ing with it a re­lent­less film­maker who de­cides to make a doc­u­men­tary about the fam­ily but un­wit­tingly ex­poses the truth about their pa­thetic ex­is­tence and skewed re­la­tion­ships. “He was af­ter a fairy tale, but there was only tragedy, squalour and chaos be­hind the doors that he was knock­ing on,” Nouschka tells us. As the at­ten­tion on the fam­i­lyf in­creases, it be­comes im­pos­si­bleim for Nouschka to go on be­liev­ing that her life is as spe­cial as she has al­ways thought. Her only chance to have a truly good life lies in leav­in­gle the fan­tasy be­hind and fac­ingf the real world on her own. o O’Neill’s talent shows in herh abil­ity to sink into the mind­set of her nar­ra­tor and show the reader the world from her point of view. Nouschka doesn’t white­wash the harsh world she lives in; she sim­ply ex­plains it as she sees it — usu­ally with a dash of hu­mour: “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, but you got to work your own hours.”

O’Neill’s prose is de­light­ful. She writes in a sim­ple, mat­ter-of-fact style in­fused with vivid metaphors and de­scrip­tions that show Nouschka’s imag­i­na­tive view of the world — such as when Nouschka sees a cat’s tail wav­ing “above the arm of the couch like an el­e­gant hand in a black glove wav­ing good­bye.” O’Neill uses the 1994 ref­er­en­dum as a metaphor too, one that sym­bol­izes Nouschka’s in­ter­nal strug­gle over sep­a­rat­ing from her de­struc­tive fam­ily or cre­at­ing her own new ex­is­tence. But O’Neill diplo­mat­i­cally por­trays the pas­sion and anger sur­round­ing the event with­out im­ply­ing any opin­ion on her end. It’s a won­der­ful work of art from a tal­ented Cana­dian writer. Win­nipeg writer Kathryne Card­well works

at the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba.

The Girl Who Was Satur­day Night

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