Spoilers! Be forewarned!
I never felt truly comfortable reading The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. O’Neill’s prose, by design, lacks the flow common to most literary fiction — it jumps uneasily from sentence to sentence, tone to tone, cavalierly tossing exquisite metaphors, sly humor, and brutally straightforward observations together in a narrative that won’t ever let the reader settle into a rhythm. This voice turns out to belong to the main character, Nouschka, who enters the story like something out of a fairytale, getting plucked off the street on her way to enroll in a GED program (or the Canadian equivalent of a GED) and being crowned a beauty queen, all the while worrying about a mysterious Nicholas, who is sure to be displeased. That this all plays out in a seedy neighborhood in Montreal shortly before the 1995 Quebec Independence Referendum, that Nicholas turns out to be Nouschka’s twin brother, and that their parents turn out to be largely absent from their lives only adds to the feeling of not-quite-reality (their father, a Quebecois separatist folk singer, impregnated their underage mother and subsequently served jail time for the relationship; their overwhelmed mother gave them up to their paternal grandparents).
Nouschka and Nicholas have only ever had each other to count on, and their dysfunctional intimacy is further complicated by their father, who paraded them on stage as children and made them public figures who are still beloved and indulged by their community (Nouschka’s beauty queen status is awarded after the judges realize who she is), and scrutinized in the press. The book finds them at a crossroads, Nicholas threatening to descend from petty, juvenile thefts to true criminal activity just as Nouschka starts to think she might want a more stable, normal life. Their struggle against and for each other is complicated by their father’s attempts to restart his career via a documentary, the revelation of their long absent mother’s identity and whereabouts, and the presence of Raphael, a former skating prodigy damaged even more significantly than the twins by his childhood fame. The novel’s distinct and immersive sense of place and time grounds the novel in history while contributing to the sense of unease — O’Neill’s 1995 Montreal is a place with a chip on its shoulder, aware of all the ways it does not fit into Canada and alternately proud of and angry about it.
The setting — and Nouchka’s unique voice describing it — transform an otherwise ordinary character arc for its heroine. Nouschka is surrounded by men — her louche father, the dueling possessive agents of chaos that are her brother and Raphael, her fading grandfather, other lovers or would be lovers — that all use her talents, her emotions, and her body for their own benefit and/or pleasure and generally seek to thwart her attempts to use those attributes on her own terms. (The one exception, a Russian immigrant that serves as a combination lover/father figure, only serves to highlight the degree to which the other characters use her.) Nouschka’s own mother, who directly appears in only a handful of chapters but hangs over the story as a symbol of the middle class normality denied to both twins, is the only other female character who gets more than three lines. Both of them, by the close of the novel, have attained a measure of self-satisfaction that eludes the male characters — in striving for respectability and normalcy, they succeed where the grandiose dreams of glory haunting the male characters leave them shattered or worse. It’s not clear if O’Neill means to say something about feminism, fame, or both, but it leaves an impression.
The surest way to get me to cry as a reader is not tragedy, but unexpected human kindness. The novel’s closing chapters, quiet and unexpectedly upbeat given the preceding events, moved me to tears. I may have never completely settled into The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, but I came to love her.
Rating: 5 stars
Next Up: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
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