I first encountered Heather O’Neill while listening to reruns of This American Life. In an airy childish voice, O’Neill read a poignant and strange story about a schoolgirl, who might be Mary Magdalene, who befriends a curious kid named Jesus in grade six. Her piece was part of the Christmas special of 2005, alongside such favorites as David Rakoff, David Sedaris, and Sarah Vowell, and it became dog-eared in my consciousness. I devoured her debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals and kept close watch for other stories on the radio or in print. Now her sophomore novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, hits the streets.
Both novels are written from the point-of-view of motherless ingénues growing up in the red-light district of Montreal with an odd array of ratty and complicated male companions. Lullabies is the story of a twelve-year old girl named Baby and her farewell kiss to childhood, which she continues to cling to like a child given a balloon. The novel is gorgeous and haunting, a real heartbreaker, laden with drugs and prostitution and homelessness and all the city grit of the downtrodden. Saturday Night is a bit lighter, set within a safer-seeming Montreal, in which love, not money, is the currency everyone values.
We loved in a self-destructive, over-the-top way. A way that was popular in sixties experimental theatre and certain Shakespeare plays. We loved like Napoleonic soldiers in Russia, penning beautiful letters while seated on the corpses of our dead horses. We were like drunk detectives who carried around tiny notebooks full of clues and fell for our suspects.
Saturday Night is the next level of bildungsroman, the one in which the heroine, Nouschka, clumsily lurches from adolescence into adulthood, symbolized by her twentieth birthday, which she shares with her enfant terrible twin brother, Nicolas. Meanwhile, their beloved homeland Quebec fights for independence in a passionate attempt at separatism.
Nouschka and Nicolas must navigate what it means to have and be family, amid a loopy grandfather, a negligent solipsistic father, an absentee mother, and their differences with each other. Their entwined twinship brings to mind The God of Small Things. But Saturday Night is no tragedy. It’s a story of love and self-discovery. As Nouschka fulfills her desire to go back to school to become a writer, she reveals what one might imagine to be O’Neill’s own artistic aspirations:
One of the reasons that I wanted to study literature was because it exposed everything. 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, or English, or Spanish, but really they were writing in the language of butterflies, crows, and hanged men.
O’Neill’s language ‘of butterflies, crows and hanged men’ is what I find so beguiling about her work. Similes blow up the ordinary. Hyperbole extends throughout.
The maple leaves were coming down like girls jumping out of hotel windows with their dresses on fire. All the ice creams stores had put curtains in their windows, as if there were deaths in the family.
On principle, I ignored guys who talked like forties pimps from Chicago. We drove down the highway. We passed all the black-eyed Susans weeping about how badly their boyfriends had treated them. But we had no time for them.
As an imagist O’Neill excels at inventing a place where magic really happens, where the mundane can become extraordinary through her protagonist’s kaleidoscopic vie en rose. Roses bloom in curtains and on cookie tins and radiators. A cat can slip into a scene as a drip of paint, a flash in a mirror, or a comma. Nouschka, like O’Neill’s first protagonist, Baby, has an uncanny and charming ability to see through the germ-laden, trash-squalid pavement to marvel at the galaxy of glitter winking in the asphalt.
The Montreal of an O’Neill novel is part Henry Darger, part The Little Rascals, and part Kids (Larry Clark) with a Quebecois chansonniers soundtrack. The red-light district itself is a caricature of its own more inimitable characters: hapless, needy, and still putting on the show each night in moth-eaten trousers and an old top hat. One can only presume that O’Neill’s works will be as long-lasting and influential.