A Product of Its Time: A Review of Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

by Myra Bloom

Myra Bloom has a PhD in Comparative Literature. She writes about language and identity politics in Canadian and Québécois lit for both academic and literary journals. Recent publications have appeared in Studies in Canadian Literature and GUTS: Canadian Feminist Magazine.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
2 Bloor Street East
Toronto, ON M4W 1A8

2014, 416 pp., $22.99, ISBN: 9781443442459

There are many ways in which Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night asks us to suspend our disbelief. Seen through the eyes of 19-year-old Nouschka Tremblay, the seedy intersection of Montreal’s Rue Saint-Catherine and Boulevard Saint Laurent is the epicentre of a bohemian kingdom she presides over with her twin brother, Nicholas. Cats flit like fairies in an out of every scene, dusting the streets with magic. It is not, however, the book’s fantastic elements that pose the biggest challenge to us as readers: arguably, the greatest leap of faith we are asked to take occurs across linguistic lines. Although The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is written in English, its characters are francophones who have actively resisted learning “the language of colonialism.” 1 The novel is furthermore set in a francophone milieu on the eve of the 1995 referendum, a moment where linguistic and cultural tensions were at their apex. Against this horizon, how do we understand O’Neill’s decision to depict her characters using the very “language of colonialism” they decry?

Whereas such a thing would have been unthinkable prior to the 1995 referendum, my contention is that O’Neill’s act of translation signals the depolarization of the proverbial “two solitudes.” As Sherry Simon has argued, the influx of new immigrants to the city over the past several decades has meant that “the old epics of identity” can no longer account for the “polyglot and hybrid culture of Montreal’s contact zones.” 2 It is not incidental that The Girl Who Was Saturday Night was published in 2014, the same year that Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois government was thoroughly trounced in Quebec’s provincial elections; political commentator Chantal Hébert called Marois’s downfall the “most crushing blow to the sovereignty movement and the Parti Québécois” in thirty years. 3 Their historic loss can be attributed in large measure to two controversial issues: the Quebec Charter of Values, a proposed bill that would have, among other things, restricted the wearing of religious symbols; and Pierre Karl Péladeau’s unscripted late-campaign plug for independence.

“O’Neill’s nostalgic romanticism conveys an implicit view of separation as the dream of a former time rather than a looming threat.”

Young voters in particular were put off by a platform they saw as “xenophobic” and antithetical to their values of multiculturalism, diversity, and tolerance. 4 Furthermore, while a recent poll suggests that sovereignty has had a recent upswing, buoyed by Péladeau’s ascent to the PQ leadership in May 5, commentators are quick to point out that these results are less significant than the consistently low support the movement has received over the past several decades. 6

At the heart of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is a structural irony: the political de-escalation that has led to the “new Montreal of increasingly relaxed social interactions” 7 is in fact enabled by the very events thematized in the novel. In other words, without the defeat of the 1995 referendum, O’Neill’s book never could have been written. It is illuminating to compare this novel with older fictional accounts of Quebec independence. Many readers will be surprised to learn that they are legion: from the 1960s to the 1980s, over 40 works of speculative/dystopian fiction were published on the topic. Apparently, “English language writers seem to feel the greatest need to explore the possible results of separation when the likelihood of its coming true is greatest.” 8 The incidents surrounding the FLQ crisis play a particularly prominent role in this sub-genre, examples of which include Bruce Powe’s Killing Ground: The Canadian Civil War (1968), Hélène Holden’s After the Fact (1986) and William Weintraub’s satirical novel The Underdogs (1979).

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night can be distinguished from these literary precursors first and foremost in terms of its temporality: whereas previous writers envisioned dystopian futures, O’Neill’s book takes a retrospective view. And if the former are largely motivated by “the fear over Quebec autonomy and the threat it poses to the established ideal of cultural and political unity,” 9 O’Neill’s nostalgic romanticism conveys an implicit view of separation as the dream of a former time rather than a looming threat.

Even though the novel is set in the year leading up to the referendum, the end of the sovereignist era is already prefigured. It is most overtly embodied in the character Étienne Tremblay, a washed-up chansonnier whose songs about the lonely piece of tourtière, the poutine-eating tiger, and the grandpapa who has gas are the campy, parochial products of a bygone time. Deadbeat father to Nouschka and Nicholas, the once great Étienne has had an epic fall from grace and is living, rumour has it, in a rooming house on Rue Saint-Dominique and eating meals at the Mission. Like the mythic figure he is, Étienne’s destiny is intertwined with that of Quebec itself: in the words of the documentarian who is making a film about the family:

“The Tremblays as a family were invented by the subconscious of a people prior to the first referendum. They are a direct result of a revolutionary, surrealist, visionary zeitgeist. They are wandering around now like animals whose habitats have been destroyed.”

There are other intimations that this ideology is on the wane, particularly among Nicholas and Nouschka’s generation. When the topic of separation comes up on the news, Nicholas says, “Oh turn this shit off […] It’s so boring and repetitive. Québec will never, ever have the guts to separate […] Look at all those sideburned monkeys from the past.” Likewise, Raphaël, Nouschka’s eventual husband, “didn’t care one way or the other about Québec independence but was always up for talking to somebody about a money-making scheme.” The sense of sovereignism’s obsolescence is so strong throughout the novel that by the time the referendum actually rolls around, O’Neill requires only two small sentences to confirm the foregone conclusion: “But that night the Non side won fifty-one percent. And Nicholas woke up knowing that nothing was going to change.”

Although O’Neill mines the seemingly essential elements of Quebec culture to great comedic effect—from its lingering social conservatism to its ubiquitous motorcycle gangs—she also gestures toward the possibility that change is in fact on the horizon. The novel ends on a hopeful note, when Adam, the upper-class anglophone who wants so desperately to be accepted by his bohemian counterparts, appears on the recently-widowed Nouschka’s landing: “After all the polemics and the debates about the two official languages of Canada, here was an English boy sitting in a stairwell, looking to be loved by a French girl.” The age of the old philosophers, who have been “brooding over their manifestos for years,” has officially ended. Adam and Nouschka’s union symbolizes the cultural contact and reconciliation that will ostensibly emerge in its wake.

This same intercultural dialogue is formally inscribed in the act of translation on which the novel is predicated. O’Neill uses a variety of techniques to evoke the francophone milieu in which the action takes place. One such strategy is the periodic insertion of untranslated interjections (“Laisse-moi tranquille avec ça”) or cultural references (Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel; Papillon; La petite vie).

“These points of cultural contact are admittedly situated on the razor’s edge between defamiliarization and appropriation.”

O’Neill produces a similar effect using the opposite technique: she translates literally the swear words, called sacres, specific to the working-class sociolect of joual: “‘My Christ of a coffee machine is broken, tabernacle of the chalice,’ Loulou yelled out from the kitchen.” In other passages, we are forced into the slightly awkward liminal space between languages. For example, Nouschka’s assertion that her English is “terrible” makes us reconcile the content of this statement with the perfect English in which it is rendered. 

These points of cultural contact are admittedly situated on the razor’s edge between defamiliarization and appropriation. Viewed from one angle, the irruptions of Québécois language and culture challenge the hegemony of English, first, within this narrative, and by extension, within Canadian society more broadly. For the anglophone Canadian, the experience of reading The Girl Who Was Saturday Night can be likened to that of a tourist: we are granted a certain access, but continually reminded that we are outsiders. The uncomfortable feeling of alienation can foster sympathy for the desire of Quebec francophones to be maîtres chez nous, a topic that the novel addresses on multiple occasions. (As Nouschka distils the issue: “We just wanted to speak French in peace. We wanted to whisper dirty things to our loved ones in French. There was a certain kind of love that could only be expressed that way.”)

By the same token, the pejorative connotations of the word “tourist” can likewise be applied to the reader, insofar as our access is both superficial and contingent on translation. There is something undeniably colonialist about the depiction, in English, of characters who overtly refuse to learn the language. That Loulou’s sacres come off as quaint and humorous in translation denies the political trenchancy of a vernacular that evolved in opposition to the Catholic Church, and whose use in literature was the subject of massive debates in Quebec in the 1960s. One could make the related point that O’Neill’s use of a francophone narrator to engage in social satire allows her to claim rhetorical territory that is not by rights her own. The first-person narration helps orchestrate a cunning bait and switch, whereby the critique appears to come from within the culture being targeted. This is of course not the case, and I am put in mind of the old adage that you can make jokes about your own mother, but not about someone else’s.

“There is something undeniably colonialist about the depiction, in English, of characters who overtly refuse to learn the language.”

While I do not believe that these criticisms can be entirely dismissed, I would argue that they are in some measure mitigated by the novel’s self-awareness regarding the politics of language. In the lead-up to the referendum, Nouschka observes a man carrying a sign that reads, “Quebec we love you! Don’t leave us!” She comments wryly in response, “They might have thought to write it in French, but what can you do?” The sign-holder, with his benevolent ignorance, in a certain sense represents the reader, who likewise can only encounter Quebec in translation.

O’Neill’s self-positioning is slightly more nuanced: her seemingly pitch-perfect satire reveals the intimate cultural knowledge of someone very familiar with Quebec and its inhabitants. “I just feel like the city somehow belongs to me,” O’Neill states in the interview with Jason Freure included in this supplement. 10 That her civic identity encompasses both the anglophone world of Lullabies for Little Criminals and the francophone world of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night—books that are in fact set across the street from one another—challenges the paradigm of the two dichotomous cultures. When asked about her decision to write in the voice of francophone sovereignists, O’Neill has repeatedly downplayed its political implications: “I didn’t really consciously think about it,” she says in one interview; “It just happened and I really enjoyed it.” 11 To “not consciously think” about a subject that has predominated Quebec’s politics speaks to a softening of cultural divisions in the years since the second referendum.

There is a passage in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night where O’Neill most explicitly shows her hand to the reader. It comes in the form of Nouschka’s explanation for why she wants to study literature:

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, or hanged men.

In the present instance, we might add cats to the list. What is most magical about the language of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is its reconciliation of the proverbial two solitudes: insofar as it announces the possibility of cultural contact, this book about the 1995 referendum is very much a product of its time.


  1. O’Neill, Heather. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014.
  2. Simon, Sherry. Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2006.
  3. “Quebec election 2014: Is sovereignty dead?” (CBC At Issue Panel): April 8, 2014. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/quebec-election-2014-is-sovereignty-dead-1.2601963.
  4. Greenaway, Kathryn. “Video: Young voters have their say.” Montreal Gazette. March 27, 2014. http://montrealgazette.com/news/world/young-voters-have-their-say.
  5. “Support for PQ, sovereignty rising: poll.” Montreal Gazette. May 19, 2015. http://montrealgazette.com/news/quebec/support-for-sovereignty-increasing-new-leger-poll-suggests.
  6. Perreaux, Les. “Quebec sovereignty movement has faltered without Jacques Parizeau.” The Globe and Mail. June 2, 2015. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/quebec-sovereignty-movement-has-faltered-without-jacques-parizeau/article24762791/.
  7. Simon, Sherry. Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2006.
  8. Pordzik, Ralph. “Quebec separatism in Canadian utopian fiction and the quest for a postcolonial future.” LISA III.2 (2005): 11-22. Web. http://lisa.revues.org/2321.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Freure, Jason. “A 19-Year-Old’s Referendum: Interview with Heather O’Neill.” The Puritan: 30. Summer 2015.
  11. Lolley, Sarah. “Saturday Night Fever.” Montreal Review of Books. Summer 2014. http://mtlreviewofbooks.ca/reviews/the-girl-who-was-saturday-night/.

Myra Bloom has a PhD in Comparative Literature. She writes about language and identity politics in Canadian and Québécois lit for both academic and literary journals. Recent publications have appeared in Studies in Canadian Literature and GUTS: Canadian Feminist Magazine.