The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

Heather O'Neill

Published by Quercus 1 May 2014

416pp, paperback, £12.99

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hilliard Selka

 

Peaches Geldof might well have identified with Noushka Tremblay. Noushka is daughter to Montreal legend and faded folk singer Etienne Tremblay and never allowed to forget it by press and passers-by alike. Her whole life has been lived on telly, ever since her father made her and her twin brother Nicolas partners in his early-1980s television fame. They would sing and dance and the nation fell in love with these cute little ingénues. Now Noushka and Nicolas are twenty, engrossed in each other and living with their grandfather Loulou in near squalor. Still they are recognized, added to which, in the run up to the 1995 referendum on Quebecois independence (the Tremblays will vote yes), a film crew is making a documentary about the family. Depending on the outcome of the ballot, the shape of the eventual programme’s narrative will either be triumph or rise-and-fall. Will Noushka go the same way as Peaches, a tragic victim of her parent’s lifestyle choices (as the red tops would have it), or will she live and flourish, finish high school and make something of herself? Will she, can she rewrite the story that seems to have been drafted for her by others, by her mother’s abandonment of her, by her father’s exposure of her on television, by the documentary’s producer?

The detail of Noushka’s chaotic circumstances and daily life, her thoughts and her feelings, seem tedious at first, but it is worth persevering with this novel. Our heroine is feisty and determined, both madcap and wonderfully sane, stylish yet messy, and passionately loyal to Nicolas, Loulou and her boyfriends, well-born law-school Adam and crazy figure-skating champion Raphael. Of course she chooses Raphael, and she’s hardly been married to him two minutes before she’s pregnant. Why is it that novels give us so much sex but so rarely any contraception? Is control of female fertility not interesting and important, not only personal but political? Is this not the twenty-first century? In spite of all the sex Noushka didn’t get pregnant, until she got married. So why, when we are given the benefit of intimate insight into all her thoughts and actions, are her contraception choices taboo?

Motherhood is a theme in Noushka’s thinking. Nicolas has discovered who their mother is, and where she lives. They go to visit her. She had them at fifteen, gave them up and has since made a life for herself. She has a husband and two children who are ignorant of the Tremblay connection. It doesn’t go well, but Noushka and her brother are sufficiently primed in the school of hard knocks to take this in their stride, up to a point. Who wouldn’t long to have a loving mother and fantasize about a childhood in which she featured? Noushka wants to give her own baby all the mothering she lacked, but she also wants to improve his chances in life by improving herself. All through this tale she is writing essays, even if she doesn’t always submit them on time. Not so surprising – she is after all distracted by her husband’s drive to self-destruction, by her twin’s incompetence as a bank robber (he was recognized, duh), by speech-writing for her father in the separation campaign. And, in time, by falling in love with her own child. In the end the same happens to us – we can’t help falling a little bit in love with Noushka and believing that she is ‘the most extraordinarily beautiful and entrancing human being’. The icing on the cake? Her mother reappears in her life, with good intentions... Heather O’Neill worried about being a one book wonder after the success of Lullabies for Little Criminals in 2006. The Girl who was Saturday Night proves she is here to stay.

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