The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

In brief: Nouschka and her twin, Nicolas, are famous in Quebec for being the children of a famous folk singer. But their wild, Bohemian life is about to get even crazier…

The good: It’s unique – in your face and the twins don’t care who knows it.

The not-so-good: A book that will take a bit to get into if you don’t read it in greedy gulps.

Why I chose it: On the Baileys Prize 2015 longlist.

Year: 2014

Pages: 403

Publisher: Quercus

Setting: Quebec, Canada

My rating: 9 out of 10

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is a crazy, wild book. Like the Bohemian area of Montreal that it’s set in, it’s a story that’s going to do its own thing and tough if you don’t like it. If it was a person, it would be a teenager wearing a ball gown, odd socks and army boots. It’s wonderfully individual and if you’re happy to be taken for the ride, you will be rewarded.

The book is set in the early 1990s in the lead up to the Quebec referendum for independence. (I’m beginning to love this time period as a book setting because people speak to each other and don’t have their head down, on Facebook). It’s told in the first person by Nouschka, who is kind of famous locally. She and her twin brother Nicolas are the children of Etienne Tremblay, a famous folk singer in Quebec. (He kind of sounds like one of the Doug Anthony Allstars, only without the swearing – his songs are political, whimsical and plain odd). Both of them grew up on television, Nicolas reluctantly (he chose to make outrageous statements, something that has continued into adulthood) and Nouschka loving it. However, behind the scenes, Etienne was rarely in their lives and they lived with their forgetful grandfather Loulou in an apartment in Montreal. Loulou couldn’t bear to discipline them, so the twins have run wild, always together, doing crazy things. Nouschka is crowned a beauty queen on her way to enrol in night school and Nicolas is a petty thief. They decide to start their own political party (the People’s People Party) and disrupt a summer day school, calling statements out the sunroof. The twins can’t be separated. Even at nineteen, they share a bed, thoughts and friends. But what happens when Nouschka falls in love with Raphael? Can she leave Nicolas – and will he let her?

This is a coming of age story but not like anything you’ve read before. It involves lions, an absent mother made famous by a song, bikers with women’s names and random violence involving saucepans between siblings. It’s crazy but it’s good fun. I found myself snickering at some of the descriptions of clothes (a sweater that looked like it was made from teddy bears) and the crazy things Nouschka and Nicolas do. The pair have been allowed to run riot forever, and nobody has stopped them, due to their slight celebrity status. They regularly make the tabloids (Nicolas getting arrested, Nouschka getting married) and they’ve never considered even trying to be normal. It’s manic fun until Nicolas goes a step too far and Nouschka decides she wants to be on her own – finish school and maybe start university.

In the background to the craziness of the characters is the fervour in the build-up to the Oui/Non referendum. I really enjoyed reading O’Neill’s descriptions of this (it sounds so much more exciting than Aussie referendums where everyone complains about having to vote) – banners and signs everywhere, people stating their case in rallies. As the lead up reaches fever pitch, Nouschka realises a few home truths about her family and her father in particular. This was one of the sadder moments in the book for me as the frantic tempo slows and the Oui supporters are defeated. Ultimately, the story ends on a high note but with a rapid slowing of pace.

It took me a little while to get used to two things in this book – the frantic tone and the frequent imagery of cats. (I don’t think it helped that cats are used to separate scenes in this book for me). I’m not a cat fan and I didn’t pause to think about the imagery meant, so maybe I missed something. The wild, crazy tone was a little difficult to get into, particularly after a long day at work – I didn’t want to think at that pace! – but I ultimately got used to it and found it easier to read this when I had dedicated amounts of time to spare. In the end, I devoured this book – it’s untamed youth looking for a good time, yet learning hard truths along the way. I congratulate Heather O’Neill for bringing that youthful exuberance into a fun coming of age story.

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