December 4th, 2014

Co-habitational reading challenge: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

My husband and I have lots of literary tastes in common and we’ve read plenty of the same books, but there’s an especial pleasure of reading the same book at the same time–it’s always exciting to sit down at dinner and say, “What bit are you at? What did you think about the part where…?” and know you’re both thinking about the same stuff.

So Mark Sampson and I try to sync our reading at least once a year. In the past, we’ve done rereads of books we’ve respectively loved and wanted to experience together (here’s the tag if you want to go back in time, though the posts are weirdly out of order). This year we wanted to read something new together, and chose kind of at random from the Giller Prize 2014 shortlist (what, they all looked good).

The book we wound up with was Heather O’Neill‘s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, mainly because we both got a hold of copies around the same time. But also it was a book we both hoped to love, as we had both adored O’Neill’s first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals a few years back.

My love of O’Neill’s writing goes back even further, to a wondrous column she used to write that no one seems to have read, in Broken Pencil, called “Goldstein on Goldstein” (I believe there was an earlier incarnation of the column written by Jonathan Goldstein, and they just never bothered changing the name when she took over). I’ve gotten so blank stares when I mentioned her good old “Goldstein on Goldstein” days that I resolved that I wouldn’t include it here unless I could find an online archive to prove I’m not crazy. And I did. And you should read’em, they are great.

To the book at hand: TGWWSN had a lot of the same everyday poetry to the language and rootedness in Montreal poverty that I loved about her column and her first book. It is narrated ¬†from the point of view of Nouschka Tremblay. She is the daughter of a Quebecois folksinger, long loved for his quirky songs about things like an elephant with a peanut up its nose and his of-the-people style. But he did knock up a 14-year-old girl in rural Quebec and brought into being Nouschka and her twin brother Nicholas. The senior Tremblay abandoned the twins with their mother and she, in term, took them to their paternal grandparents and never came back. After the grandmother’s passing, they were raised by Etienne’s senile father, Loulou.

Whew–that’s a lot of setup. But it works, quite well, actually. It was amazing how Etienne’s localized celebrity–he is unknown to people outside Quebec and perhaps Anglos anywhere–seems completely realistic. It felt totally possibly that he actually existed, and I didn’t know it–the way people sang his songs in their wanderings and recognized him on the street, the way he go mixed up in the cause of Separatism without every really being that interested.

Lots of the press and bumpf about this novel consider the referendum a part of the events, but it isn’t really–it’s simply an ingenious way of grounding the TGWWSN concretely in time and place. It feels so specific, so exactly where it seeks to be–really brilliant on the author’s part. But this is not more a political novel than LFLC–politics might be architecture, or the weather. It is what it is.

Oh, and plot–there isn’t one for, in my estimation, more than half the book. Maybe Nouschka and Nicholas are too claustrophobically close, lost in their own twin-world, sleeping in the same bed (O’Neill very determinedly tries to make this not creepy and succeeds, barely). Maybe they need to find their mother. Maybe Nouschka needs to get a good job and get out of the fatalistic poverty in which her brother and grandfather live.

None of these are quite plot worthy, but we do gradually see the stakes rise (at the beginning of the book, with the twins noodling around their neighbourhood, the plot level felt dangerously close to nil. Nicholas becomes more self-destructive and Nouschka does her own bit on that front, by hooking up with, and then marrying (at 20!) the strange and disturbed Rafael. Things happen, the risk is real, and I got more gripped by the story in the final third. I don’t want to say I had been bored earlier–O’Neill’s gorgeous prose and my love of the quotidian kept boredom at bay, but I did wonder when something would, you know, happen.

In the last 50 or so pages EVERYTHING happens, so I guess that answered that. I ended the read a bit shell-shocked–it’s rare that a book feels both overlong and too tumultuous. But I don’t know that it was actually too anything–it simply wasn’t what I was expecting.

Even the more querulous complaints I had about the book were more questions than anything–from what point in her life was Nouschka reflecting on these events? The narrator is clearly not in the same time period as the protagonist–she keeps saying things like “I was so young” but you never find out where this narrator-Nouschka went in her life or how things turned out, or what called her to tell her story in this way. I was disappointed, but I do overthink things.

I also wondered how to think about a book written in English about characters who make a point of speaking only in French–who in fact distrust Anglos and are mystified by them. There’s many wondrous turn of phrase in this book, but they would all be completely different in another language. I wasn’t sure what to make of that, really–do you know?

And finally, the cats–they turn up every dozen or so pages, but I didn’t know why. Yes, I like cats and it makes me happy to see them in books, but there never seemed to be any point to them. Many of the cats belong to neighbours or are street cats, but Nouschka refers once to having cats of her family’s own, and then never again. No one had a relationship with any of the cats, just cutesy little descriptions that I actually really didn’t like. But again, I overthink things, especially things to do with cats.

I don’t have a letter or number grade for this book but I really enjoyed reading it and think Heather O’Neill is a wonderful writer despite the fact I didn’t like everything about this book. I also really loved reading the book with my husband (for his take on the experience, see here). It’s great to share a book in this way–a highly recommended experiment, whatever you like to read.

 

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