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Saturday-night special

Quebec child stars grapple with growing up

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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 family increases, it becomes impossible 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 leaving the fantasy behind and facing the real world on her own.

O'Neill's talent shows in her 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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2014 G6


Updated on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at 8:36 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting, adds book jacket image.

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