When a passage on page two is just breathtakingly powerful, readers’ expectations soar. It seems impossible to imagine reading beyond this passage without stopping to reread, or not reading it aloud to a friend sitting alongside, or not tapping the stranger sitting next to you, pointing and saying “Check this out”.

Girl Saturday Night ONeill

HarperCollins, 2014

  “We were all descended from orphans in Québec. Before I’d dropped out of high school, I remembered reading about how ships full of girls were sent from Paris to New France to marry the inhabitants. They stepped off the boat with puke on their dresses and stood on the docks, waiting to be chosen.
They were pregnant before they even had a chance to unpack their bags. They didn’t want this. They didn’t want to populate this horrible land that was snow and rocks and skinny wolves. They spoke to their children through gritted teeth. That’s where the Québec accent came from. The nation crawled out from between their legs.”

But when readers respond passionately to a work so early, there is an immediate concern that perhaps that level of accomplishment cannot be sustained.

When it comes to Heather O’Neill’s use of language, it is consistently powerful and beautiful throughout her second novel.

This is evident in short metaphoric bursts and in other sweeping descriptive statements. Her description of the Montreal setting is another fine example and indeed it is impossible to imagine the novel unfolding anywhere else.

“Dreaming too big was the cause of much horror on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. The street was filled with people whose dreams had gone bust. It wasn’t always drugs and bad childhoods that brought them this low. It was ambition. There was a whole group of fallen Icaruses sitting under the blazing fluorescent lights at the soup kitchen. Their jackets were half blown off by the fall. They had the complexions of clowns whose cigars had just exploded.”

These descriptions can contain a sensory weight, another dimension of possibility, that might remain static in another writer’s hands.

“There were horses on one of the girls’ T-shirts. If you put your ear up against her chest, you could hear them galloping. I was here on Rue Saint-Catherine that the most beautiful kisses in the world were grown.”

Heather O’Neill’s prose is remarkably lyrical, uncomplicated but impressive. Readers who appreciate beautiful prose, like that of Anne Michaels with a dash of the unexpected as in Karen Russell’s, will likely find themselves flagging multiple passages, regularly rereading and admiring phrases and paragraphs.

But whether the novel truly succeeds with readers depends upon a connection to character. The language alone is not enough to ferry readers through a narrative preoccupied with insecurity and near-misery.

Readers are immersed in simultaneous connection and disconnection and varied states between; there is constant conflict, in the shape of collisions and separations which threaten (and sometimes achieve) disruption or decimation.

This is certainly true of the core relationship, between siblings Nouschka and Nicolas, who are immovable, riding down the middle of the novel’s street.

  “I suppose there was something a bit freakish about our relationship. We hadn’t changed the way we acted very much at all since we were seven.
Nicolas got on his bicycle and rode next to me. We rode our bicycles in the middle of the street. The cars behind us kept honking at us to tell us to move out of the way. But we didn’t move. We still owned that street.”

But it is also true about provincial relationships, for considerable conflict is building regarding whether Quebec will separate from Canada.

“Other countries had declarations of independence written by men with white wigs and tailcoats and buckled shoes. Ours was written by men with bell-bottoms and sideburns and tinted sunglasses and enormous butterfly collars.”

This is uncomfortable territory, and relationships of all kinds are strained and fractured. Although in some ways The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is a love story, that does not guarantee a happy ending for either characters or readers.

“Love is like this small room where a child brings you to show you all their treasures. First the child shows you all the new toys that are bright and shiny and top of the line. But then she shows you all the stuff that has ended up at the bottom of the trunk.”

As in Lullabies for Little Criminals, however, there is a respite offered through art.

“Writers looked for secrets that had never been mined. Every writer has to invent their own magical language, in order to describe the indescribable. They might seem to be writing in French, English or Spanish, but really they were writing in the language of butterflies, crows and hanged men.”

Much of this story is difficult and painful, but there is something redemptive about the storyteller’s approach which eases readers’ discomfort. Readers who require a sense of steady progression and likeable characters will perhaps prefer another day of the week. But readers who appreciated the harsh beauty of Lullabies for Little Criminals will fervently admire The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.

IFOASmallBadgeHeather O’Neill will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on another IFOA2014 author.