For this week’s installment, part two in the series “Sam gets better acquainted with Montreal’s cultural products”, we have a book: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill.

Recently, this author has been coming up in basically every discussion of contemporary Anglo-Montreal literature. I even name-dropped her in my thesis, even though I hadn’t gotten around to actually reading her yet. Her third book came out this year, and the one I read came out last year. Both were nominated for the Giller prize, and her first book, Lullabies for Little Criminals won Canada Reads in 2007. She does great things with language, and her use of French is very much typical of the current literature coming out of English-speaking Montreal. I should have read her works ages ago. I am ashamed of how woefully out of date I am.

So, even though I picked up a couple new comics over the week and was secretly planning a Jessica Jones binge, I assumed I would be happy to spend time with this novel.

But. It didn’t work out that way.

Truthfully, I feel almost a little betrayed. I was so prepared to love this book. And indeed, there are so many things I like about it… but I’m not blown away by the product as a whole. I’ve put off writing this blog entry as long as possible, but it’s time to face this head on. I came into this novel with very high expectations, and they were not met.

WHY CANT I LOVE YOUI am baffled. This book should have won me over from the start. It takes place in Montreal. The writing is beautiful. The language of the book, a sort of English “filtered” through French, could be a topic of study in any grad school literature course. There are approximately one million cats, who do things like tiptoe “like a naked girl heading to the bathroom after she’s had sex in an unfamiliar apartment”. There are brief flashes of magical realism. The heroine might have come straight from a Weetzie Bat book, one of the series that captured my imagination as a teenager. But in the end, I am lukewarm on it all and I don’t know why. Maybe I need to read it again.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night follows Nouschka and her brother Nicolas Tremblay, a pair of twins born to a teenage girl and a famous Quebec chansonnier. They were raised by their grandfather Loulou, as their mother gave them up and their father fluctuates between ignoring them and using them to get back into the spotlight. They’re Separatists. Neither of them have finished high school. Both of them drink, dance and sex their way through the city as only young people can. Nicolas has a four-year-old son he never sees. Nouschka wants to be a writer, and it is through her voice that the story is told.

As I mentioned previously, the writing itself is absolutely charming. Every sentence feels eminently quotable. O’Neill uses plain words, built into sentences that ought to read like a high school lessons on metaphor or simile, but are happily so much more. In the hands of a lesser writer, these phrases would have been stale or boring, but everything comes together just right, in quaint, lovably rickety phrases.  I read some paragraphs multiple times before moving on.  Maybe this is why I couldn’t really get into the plot – I was too distracted by the words to feel close to most of the characters.

The characters, in theory, are compelling. Everyone feels flawed, but in the most lovable ways. The intense twin-bond between Nouschka and Nicolas feels natural. The siblings’ worst decisions all make sense. The side characters are well-rounded. Nouschka’s narrative alternates between flights of fancy and simple, sad truths – “You will never be loved by anyone the way that you will be loved by a motherless child,” she says at one point, and you feel for her (and, I guess, all motherless children out there).

The Ukrainian National Federation - one of the many obvious Mile End landmarks featuredI was equally won over by the setting. Nouschka’s life takes place in the blocks surrounding St-Laurent and Fairmount, with the bulk of the novel taking place just before the referendum in 1995. While some reviews I read mentioned that the Mile End of today is “vastly changed” from what it was in the 90s, the bones of the setting remain the same. You’ll find a million geographical and cultural landmarks. If you weren’t around in the 1990s or even the early-to-mid 2000s and can’t imagine a slightly-less-gentrified area, just … transplant a little squalor from a different neighbourhood, and you’ll get the general idea.

At one point, Nouschka tells us, “I was trying my best to straighten out my life, but I always ended up in the middle of some festive waste of time.” No other author has managed to succinctly capture how it feels to be in your early twenties in Montreal. Heather O’Neil spent most of her life in the city, and according to my hasty research, grew up in the neighbourhood. The sheer levels of accuracy and details in this novel make it clear that she is writing a place that she is intimately acquainted with. Every mundane location, from depanneur to chalet to back alley, may not be described in painstaking detail, but you get the impression, from the tiny hints dropped, that the author has very, very specific locations in mind.

Inextricably linked to the setting and characters is, of course, the French language. You can’t really have a realistic Montreal novel set in the referendum and expect to sidestep the language issue. Since the narrator is francophone, but the book is written almost entirely in English, O’Neil has created an English that … looks French, if you squint at it. When Nouschka recites her father’s songs (in English), they don’t rhyme, but instead read like almost literal translations of something coming from the French – I caught myself trying to figure out what the “original” words were. Key sentences and words are left in French, though I am assuming that even someone with zero French under their belt could figure it out. Nouschka even reminds the readers on several occasions that she doesn’t actually speak much English. When she describes the actual English she would use, we are treated to constructions like “that season after winter, with the blossoms” instead of “spring”. Like O’Neill’s simple, fanciful writing style, this affectation could have fallen flat but instead lands brilliantly. This kind of language manipulation – the inclusion of French in an English text, or vice versa – is my catnip. I am basically the target market for the stuff. I would recommend this book to language and literature nerds, or anyone who enjoys living in a bilingual city, just so you can see for yourselves how it can be done well.

This book has many things to recommend it. I can see that it’s worth reading. I would certainly never stop you. The more I write about it, the more positive I feel. But I don’t know.  I don’t have a strong reaction, positive or negative. If you like Montreal, or books about your early 20s, or well-crafted figurative language, then yes. At the very worst, you will be as ambivalent as I am, and at the very best you’ll be enchanted. I guess.


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