At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison


  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (July 7, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1620409941
  • ISBN-13: 978-1620409947




Building to an extraordinary climax over the course of one spring month, At Hawthorn Time is both a clear-eyed picture of a rural community and a heartbreaking exploration of love, land and loss.


At Hawthorn Time was one of several Baileys Prize longlisted titles I gifted myself earlier in the year. I picked a few of the more interesting books and made liberal use of my Buy It Now finger, a habit I practice less often now that I’m single and down to one income. It’s a necessary economy, still, I allow myself the luxury every now and then. Because there’s nothing better than getting a big box of books in the mail to lift the spirits.

In the course of the past few weeks, I’ve been in book culling mode. As I’m culling, I’m becoming more aware of exactly what’s on my shelves. Last week I came across my Baileys stash and grabbed Harrison’s novel at random, finishing it in the course of three or four days. It’s a quiet book, one that simmers slowly. It’s about the drama of the everyday. Nothing big happens, nothing splashy or headline-making, but to the characters the events are life-changing.

I enjoy novels with converging storylines, featuring characters unrelated but inhabiting the same geographical space. It allows deep exploration of a sense of place through the eyes of a cross-section of characters coming from very different perspectives.

At Hawthorn Time tells the stories of four main characters living in the area surrounding Lodeshill, a smallish English village:

Howard and Kitty, married 30 years and new to the village since their retirement, have grown steadily apart, unhappy but lacking the energy to do anything about it. When Kitty learns she may be ill, she’s forced into deciding what she’ll tell her husband, if anything. And when their children come to visit, this couple that’s slept apart must make room for guests sleeping in their home.

Jack, a rebellious modern-day hippie who skipped imprisonment after his conviction for trespassing, is walking across country on his way back to the village, hoping he’s not recognized and taken into custody while working migrant jobs for the money to keep body and soul together. Spending every day looking over his shoulder, when he is eventually discovered he’s forced to decide where he’ll go from there.

And Jamie, a 19-year old man with no prospects or direction in life, limps along in a low-paying, unfulfilling job while also helping his parents deal with the growing dementia of his grandfather. As the one person closest to his grandfather, when the old man goes missing it falls on Jamie to unravel the mystery of what happened to him and where, and if, he can be found.

Before it all ends, the lives in the story do cross, with disastrous consequences.

This book should be read for its beautiful language, gentle and meandering contemplation of relationships and ever-deepening examination of the inner lives of the characters. It can’t be read in a spirit of impatience, or it will not hold interest.

There is crisis and catharsis, movement and change. These are the sorts of crises you see from a distance, in friends and acquaintances with whom you don’t share all life’s problems. You think to yourself there must be more behind a surface that seems so tranquil, but aren’t always privy to their secrets.

At Hawthorn Time goes inside the lives we keep hidden. A lovely, lovely novel.

Baileys Prize shortlist 2016: why ‘A Little Life’ should win, and why it probably won’t



quotes“He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.”

  • A Little Life


This is not a good year to be anyone other than Hanya Yanagihara, not if you’re queued up with her for the final round of the Baileys Prize for Fiction. There’s always one work of absolute perfection published every year, that one novel that dominates. In 2015, that one book was A Little Life, a gut-wrenching, teeth-gritting masterpiece that positively eviscerates the reader with its power, the magnitude of its genius, honestly portraying the gritty realism of how terrible and beautiful life is.

Whether the judges honor this remains to be seen. As so often happens, literary prizes often sidestep the “it” book of the year, the obvious winner, in favor of a lesser-known and very good book that by all rights should be the runner-up – that should have won had the one great book not been written. It’s a show of “yes, we know this one book is a masterpiece, but we’ve given it due publicity, now let’s give this almost as good book a chance.”

This will not diminish the greatness of the obvious first choice, though I question whether it’s a fair move. The thing is, it happens so often as to almost be predictable – irritatingly so. A Little Life should win, by all rights. No other book published in 2015 can touch it, which is why I posit the opinion it will not win, though I dearly hope I am wrong.


quotesA Little Life asks serious questions about humanism and euthanasia and psychiatry and any number of the partis pris of modern western life. It’s Entourage directed by Bergman; it’s the great 90s novel a quarter of a century too late; it’s a devastating read that will leave your heart, like the Grinch’s, a few sizes larger.


It’s a difficult book, grueling sometimes.  The themes are not easy, not pretty and succeeded in turning away scores of readers. Some of those whose opinions I respect, discerning readers who don’t suffer inferior writing gladly, have thrown up their hands in despair over A Little Life. And I get that. It’s not easy wading through the muck of despair, the brutality life’s capable of inflicting.

But here’s the thing: great writing should upset the reader, it should evoke strong emotion, make us face difficult truths. Its responsibility is to hold a mirror up to society, forcing us to search our souls. If it doesn’t do that, what’s the point?

Writing that skims along the surface forces no change. The pen is mightier than the sword, you know the expression? It has no meaning if the sword is dull. If the words don’t wound, no guilt is punished, no fakery stripped away.


quotesYanagihara’s novel can also drive you mad, consume you, and take over your life. Like the axiom of equality, “A Little Life” feels elemental, irreducible—and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it.


It’s up to the Baileys judges now. I only hope they support art at its purest over a misguided sense of fair play. That’s what the Longlist was for, showcasing really good books representative of the best literature of the year, allowing a couple of spots for writing that’s good but not necessarily great. Whittled down to the Shortlist, only the best should remain standing. The time for being nice is done.

I hope they honor what literary prizes should reflect: rewarding the best of the best, judged by a jury of its peers. And, this year, the best of the best is A Little Life.

Best of luck to Hanya Yanagihara.






Baileys Longlist 2016: waking up

baileysprize2016Enough nickle and diming the longlisters of 2016. At this rate I’ll never get through introducing them, much less narrowing down my list of must-find-and-read-no-matter -how-much-sleep-I-must-lose-in-the-process.

Because you can always sleep when you’re dead, am I right? Not while there are books you’re still alive to read.


“…there will be sleeping

enough in the grave….”

  • Ben Franklin

“I’ve visited his grave, and he’s not kidding. There’s really not much going on there.”

  • Lisa Guidarini


There are TEN debut novels on the Baileys Longlist this year. T-E-N. While I’ve been piddling my way through, barfing up blog posts at midnight just to get something out there about this list, as if I’m the first pioneer to crest this particular hill, it’s totally passed me by that this list is dominated by new writers.



borderbarbedwire longwayshinyplantdictionarymutualunderstandingbaileyswhispers



Well, if it’s going to be a prize for first novels, now that’s a different animal. I’m all about finding new writers. Pitting first novels against literary heavyweights, that’s what I question. I mean, perhaps throwing in a brand new writer or two is one thing, but ten?

That takes some serious balls.


Kate Atkinson. The phenomenon that is Hanya Yanagihara. Elizabeth Strout and Geraldine Brooks vs. 10 neophytes.

Now, on what by now must be the third or perhaps even fourth hand, read a bit about these ten and you’ll see how mind-blowingly good these books sound. As in, how on earth did the judges unearth so much new talent? A thousand book scouts on a thousand book hunts could scarcely have found such wealth.

But they have.

This has officially blown my reading mind. It’s shut me up, readers. Or, rather, stunned me into temporary confusion while I have time for the little gears in my brain to catch up.

I do not know what to make of this prize. It’s either the most brilliant list ever or it’s broken every rule and must be punished.

All I know is I’m riveted. Positively riveted.



This. Is. Big.


Baileys Longlist 2016: Jackie Copleton – ‘A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding’

baileysprize2016Novelist, journalist and teacher of English abroad Jackie Copleton has written her first novel framed by the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

A former  teacher in the city, Copleton’s novel  was heavily influenced by gaining deeper understanding cultivating relationships with the people of contemporary Japan – a Japan that has never and will never forget the events of World War II. As will no one else affected by the innumerable traumas inflicted by war.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding has been praised as “poetic,” “sensual” and “heartbreaking,” adjectives not unusual in describing most any longlisted book. So it’s surely not for these reasons alone the novel was chosen by the Baileys judges.  No doubt the subject matter has much to do with its selection; the devastation of a historic massacre of unfathomable proportion tends to serve as a fertile backdrop for heavily literary fiction.



  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (December 1, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143128256
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143128250

In my own reading, there hasn’t been much in the way of war literature set in Japan, so far as I recall. Most of what I’ve read has been placed in Europe or America, from the perspective of either those left behind or returned home afterward.

The one book that springs to mind immediately is a work of nonfiction, Laura Hillenbrand’s stunning Unbroken, arguably one of the best works of historical biography ever written, partially set in W.W. II Japan. If you haven’t read it, either by omission or because you avoid the blare of praise, read it now. It’s one of that rare breed of popular books deserving of every superlative invented for the purpose.

The Five Best Works of W.W. II Fiction: from The Wall Street Journal


Then there’s the literature of the Holocaust, from Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl to Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Elie Wiesel’s Night to Schindler’s List, told from the perspective of Jewish victims. So much fine writing by or about the Jews. I know these are far from the only titles I’ve read.

In general fiction about the war, there’s the brilliant City of Thieves and Suite Francaise, Atonement and The English Patient, Corelli’s Mandolin and Stones From the River, not to mention the post-WW II Snow Falling on Cedars, touching on the Japanese internment camps in the United States.

But books set in Japan, now that’s an area I’m woefully lacking.


Aquotesmaterasu Takahashi’s daughter, Yuko, and grandson, Hideo, died when the atomic bomb exploded above Urakami Cathedral. Unable to come to terms with the loss, she escapes the devastated city with her husband, Kenzo, eventually settling on the East Coast of America. Now an old widow with little but whiskey for company, she is forced to retread the pathways of her memories when a man arrives at her door claiming to be her grandson, Hideo.


We’ll see how A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding  fares. Could be it’s the sort of book I should consider adding to my W.W. II repertoire. If it makes it to the shortlist, it just may keep my attention.

Nagasaki, August 9, 1945.

Nagasaki, August 9, 1945.


Author Jackie Copleton, speaking about the story behind her novel:

More fiction about life after Hiroshima, from the Chicago Tribune.




Baileys Longlist 2016: Becky Chambers’ ‘The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet’

baileysprize2016Becky Chambers’ story is arguably the most unique of all the Baileys-nominated titles. Sponsored by a Kickstarter campaign, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet epitomizes the self-publishing culture, the sort of rags to riches story many dream of but pretty much no one achieves.

Born in California, Chambers began her career writing freelance and now works as a technical writer. At least she is currently. With a first book nominated for the Baileys Prize, that just may change. Barely touched by major review outlets, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is poised to explode onto the scene in a huge way. Should it win, well, I can’t even imagine what will happen to the novel, to the literary world, to the reputation of the Baileys Award.

quotesSomewhere within our crowded sky, a crew of wormhole builders hops from planet to planet, on their way to the job of a lifetime. To the galaxy at large, humanity is a minor species, and one patched-up construction vessel is a mere speck on the starchart. This is an everyday sort of ship, just trying to get from here to there. But all voyages leave their mark, and even the most ordinary of people have stories worth telling. A young Martian woman, hoping the vastness of space will put some distance between herself and the life she‘s left behind. An alien pilot, navigating life without her own kind. A pacifist captain, awaiting the return of a loved one at war. Set against a backdrop of curious cultures and distant worlds, this episodic tale weaves together the adventures of nine eclectic characters, each on a journey of their own.






Part of me wants to root for the underdog, though the majority believes it highly unlikely – perhaps outrageously inappropriate – that a self-published first novel could conceivably topple heavily literary, major writers of established reputation. Not having read the book, I’m willing to play a bit of Devil’s advocate here.

Uncharacteristically, I’m not enraged as much as intrigued. Does her book deserve a win, or is her presence a mere statement piece, a statement endorsing the work of completely unknown, self-published writers?

I suspect the latter, but this move is shocking enough I’m actually thrown. Doesn’t happen often, but then neither do books funded by Kickstarter campaigns regularly make the ranks of major literary awards.

After watching her YouTube video, you know, I really like her. Enough to pull for her in lieu of writers like Kate Atkinson, Anne Enright and Elizabeth Strout?

Oh honey, I don’t know about that. But damn is she charming.



Baileys Longlist 2016: Cynthia Bond’s ‘Ruby’


I didn’t have time to read Cynthia Bond’s Ruby way back when the publisher sent me a copy, and you better believe I regret it now. I’m sure whatever I was doing at the time was important enough to warrant the diversion of my attention, but now I’m left barreling through piles and piles of review books, in the vain hope this particular one made it from my former marital home to my apartment.


Friends, it’s looking grim.




  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth; 01-Apr-08 edition (February 10, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804188246
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804188241


Comparisons to Toni Morrison’s prose only add to my sense of desperation. Not a tidy person at the best of times, right now my place looks like a book typhoon hit it.  I literally toss books over my shoulder as I power through the stacks like a mad sorting machine.  And I could perhaps just ask Hogarth for another copy, but now my pride’s at stake. I had it in my hand nd I set it aside.

Shame on me.



“Channeling the lyrical phantasmagoria of early Toni Morrison and the sexual and racial brutality of the 20th century east Texas, Cynthia Bond has created a moving and indelible portrait of a fallen woman… Bond traffics in extremely difficult subjects with a grace and bigheartedness that makes for an accomplished, enthralling read.”

—Thomas Chatterton Williams, San Francisco Chronicle


Being hand-picked by Oprah’s people as a book group title, let’s be honest here, casts a certain shadow on a book. That Ruby was chosen takes away a bit of its cachet. No fault of Cynthia Bond’s of course, and economically speaking a brilliant stroke of luck. However, Oprah’s New Age-y feel good image doesn’t mix so well with high literature. Some credence is lost. SEE: Franzen, Jonathan.

Do I believe Oprah actually reads the books she endorses? Well, maybe, but much as I struggle to find the time to read the bit I do, how on earth could she have so much free time at her disposal?

But then, publicity is publicity. Maybe the whole question’s moot.


quotesWhen I found out that Bond is 53 and hadn’t written a book before, I thought, Wow. This woman was born to write. There’s no other explanation for such a vivid, searing first-time novel that penetrates through the page to the reader’s heart. Writing is Bond’s calling. No question about it.

– Oprah Winfrey (or her people)


So, color me a bit dubious. On the one hand, it sounds stellar. On the other, I’ve written blurbs in the past, and I know exactly how it works. Hold onto your bonnet Lucille, and come perch on my knee. Let me tell you a little secret about the book world… sometimes we exaggerate, using superlatives that are over the top and unrelated to a book’s true merit.

Now, run along and play. Mummy’s busy.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Cynthia Bond’s book made the first cut. But will it make the shortlist, that’s the question. If I can find my freaking copy, maybe I’ll come back and opine on that very matter.  If I can’t, maybe I’ll read up on it some more and come back with an uninformed opinion.

Because you know me by now; not knowing much of anything about a topic hasn’t stopped me from pontificating on it yet. And I don’t see much reason to break that habit now.

Until then, here’s a video review, courtesy of my dear friend Andi at Estella’s Revenge:

Baileys Longlist 2016: Shirley Barrett’s ‘Rush Oh!’


I’d never heard of Shirley Barrett before her Baileys nomination. Lo and behold, she’s an award winning director and screenwriter, recipient of several Australian film awards as well as a Camera D’Or from the Cannes Film Festival for her Love Serenade. (1996). Born in Melbourne, Australia in 1961, Barrett now makes her home in Sydney.


Rush Oh! is her first novel. And she’s pretty much hit it out of the park on her first attempt, wouldn’t you say?

quotesRush Oh! takes the form of a memoir written by Mary Davidson, the daughter of the real-life whaler George “Fearless” Davidson. His fictionalised daughter Mary, now in her 60s, looks back on the “brutal days” of the most difficult season in whaling history. Its hardships led not only to the degeneration of her father’s beloved business but also of the family unit. Mixing historical detail with humour and an engaging romantic subplot of what might have been, Barrett has written an unusual and entertaining yarn centred around Melville’s great leviathan.”


Finding lovely new writers is one of the real joys of book award lists. While not all lists are created equally, with a bit of judicious nosing about one can find some very promising reads by following media buzz.


I’m very light on Australian literature. I’ve read Kate Grenville,  Nevil Shute, Peter Carey, Christina Stead and James Coetzee, to name a few, but the country has such a rich literary tradition and I’ve barely scratched the surface. In Rush Oh! Barrett tackles Melville, My curiousity to read how that turns out is best described as burning. And from the reviews, it sounds like it’s one rip-roaring read.




  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (March 22, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316261548
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316261548
An impassioned, charming, and hilarious debut novel about a young woman’s coming-of-age, during one of the harshest whaling seasons in the history of New South Wales.
1908: It’s the year that proves to be life-changing for our teenage narrator, Mary Davidson, tasked with providing support to her father’s boisterous whaling crews while caring for five brothers and sisters in the wake of their mother’s death. But when the handsome John Beck-a former Methodist preacher turned novice whaler with a mysterious past-arrives at the Davidson’s door pleading to join her father’s crews, suddenly Mary’s world is upended.”


Here’s a lovely video featuring this longlisted title:

Baileys Longlist 2016: Kate Atkinson’s ‘A God in Ruins’


baileysprize2016Welcome to the 2016 Bailey’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, and this year’s installment of MY GOD I CAN’T POSSIBLY READ ALL THESE BOOKS, BUT I CAN’T NOT, EITHER  breakdown.

It’s a prize I see coming months away, yet I can’t manage to protect myself from the inevitable uncontrolled lust it provokes. Same for the Bookers, or it was.

These past few years have proven that prize ridiculously political and unliterary in ways which are unforgivable. Are they now moot, well that’s the question. Maybe so. Maybe I’m done with them. GASP of utter dismay – but ask me again next time that longlist rolls around.

But not so the Baileys, oh no, not so. They remain very relevant, even crucial. Other awards remain male-dominated. Disagree? Do the math, then come see me once you’ve finished. I’ll have forgotten on what errand I sent you way before you return, but it would impress me knowing you’d tried.




  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (January 12, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316176508
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316176507


I’ve read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a sort of prequel to her latest Bailey’s Prize-nominated A God in Ruins, and that book was masterful, a gob-smacker. This is why it hurts me so deeply that I’m too involved with reviewing other books and interviewing other writers to pick up her newest and do it any justice.  Because not only has it been nominated for the Baileys, it also won last year’s Costa.

I mean, FUCK ME. How can I not find time to read this book? Please hold while the stabbing pain in my heart subsides.

quotes“We cannot turn away,” Miss Woolf told her, “we must get on with our job and we must bear witness.”

What did that mean, Ursula wondered.

“It means,” Miss Woolf said, “that we must remember these people when we are safely in the future.”

“And if we are killed?”

“Then others must remember us.”

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life


I’m cowed by Atkinson. She exhibits a generous helping of spatial logic, for lack of a more apt term, which may make no sense when applied to reading, but think about it.

Just a bit.

Keep thinking.

She has it and I lack it. I feel physical pain in my brain – not my head, my actual brain – when I try to picture very complex imagery or wrap my understanding around extremely twisty-turny stories. No, I’m not stupid, but I have a certain limit.  I’ll throw out Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch as an example of a novel that nearly blew up my brain.

Don’t even get started on Ulysses.


quotesOn A God in Ruins:

“Triumphant…such a dazzling read…Atkinson gives Teddy’s wartime experiences the full treatment in a series of thrilling set pieces. Even more impressive,though, is her ability to invest the more everday events with a similar grandeur…almost as innovative as Atkinson’s technique in Life After Life – a possibly more authentic as an expression of how it feels to be alive…it ends on one of the most devastating twists in recent fiction…it adds a further level of overwhelming poignancy to an already extraordinarily affecting book.”

— James Walton Daily Telegraph


I love Kate Atkinson’s books but she gives me a pain in the head. Let that one settle. I love her, and I’ll never stop reading her, but doing so demands I blaze new trails in my brain.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing?

So, what’s a girl to do. Dunno, but what I’m doing is linking to a charmingly enthusiastic review of AGIR, a YouTube video review done by a lovely young vlogger from her channel ‘Always Bookish,’  because I think she’s adorable:

There, now, don’t you feel better about life already.

Baileys Prize: the update

Though I haven’t properly finished another Longlisted book, I have been working on a couple of them.



On my Kindle, I’m reading The Bees by Laline Paull. What’s charming about this book is its use of bees as characters: anthropomorphism, if you want to be picky about it. Paull gives us so much information about what goes on in bee colonies via a fictional story based on a deformed bee, a “Flora,” who wasn’t quite a sanitation bee but not one of the more elegant, lady-like bees, either. Not knowing exactly where to put her, the colony bounces her around a bit. The novel also addresses current theories as to why bees are diminishing so quickly, a theme addressed in rumors between the bees themselves, who speak of what’s been happening in hushed whispers. Something is causing birth defects but what?

I can’t see the book winning the prize but, as I’m finding from other reads on the list, I would recommend it to voracious readers such as myself, who’ll read anything that’s beautifully done. At first, I was a bit put off by the idea of bees as storytellers but, you know, they’re absolutely fascinating. I love watching bees in my garden and I don’t jump and scream when they come near me. I’m not an ass to them, so they’re not asses to me, either. We have a deal. I have no such deal with spiders, however. I see them, they die. No novel could change my mind on that.

Not even Charlotte’s Web




From my library stash, I’ve begun A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie.  This is the first of the Longlisters I’m finding dull. Honestly, I see nothing special in it whatsoever. Here’s Amazon’s declaration:


A God in Every Stone is a kaleidoscopic masterpiece of empire and rebellion by a storyteller of dizzying ambition and talent.


No. No, it isn’t. And I hope I’ve never written a sentence like that in my own reviewing. I won’t be finishing this novel. No time to spare for soporific reads.

So, here’s the list, updated. The books I’ve read, attempted or have refused to read (I’m so sorry, Anne Tyler)/can’t lay hands on are highlighted:


Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber)

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans (Doubleday) – US release July 28, 2015

Aren’t We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson (Penguin)

I Am China by Xiaolu Guo (Chatto & Windus)

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (Viking)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador)

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman (Chatto & Windus)

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill (Quercus)

The Bees by Laline Paull (Fourth Estate)

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips (Jonathan Cape)

The Walk Home by Rachel Sieffert (Virago) – ????

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury)

How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

The Shore by Sara Taylor (William Heinemann) – US release May 26, 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus)

The Offering by Grace McCleen (Sceptre) – ????

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Virago)

After Before by Jemma Wayne (Legend Press)

The Life of a Banana by PP Wong (Legend Press) – US release May 1, 2015



I am so kicking ass.

Baileys Prize Longlist read: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill


  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (June 3, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374162662
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374162665

I’ll have to speed up my thoughts on these Longlisters, as my books read pile is growing taller and taller, and we won’t discuss Mount Readmore. I’ve pulled off both the hikers and sherpas; an avalanche is imminent.

I felt the heft of this current Baileys Longlister and knew I was looking at two to three days reading time, plus a day writing up the review. That’s three more days than I can afford to take away from my life right now. Unless, of course, it was as great as it turned out to be.

Four-hundred sixteen pages in one day, lads and lasses. One day. If I think fast thoughts and my fingers fly, my down and dirty review will be done the same day. Oh, it’s happening, bitchez.

Siblings Nicolas and Nouschka, twins born to celebrity singer/comedian/showman extraordinaire Etienne Tremblay and a 14-year old girl he impregnated, grew up in their grandfather’s squalid apartment in Quebec. As is often the case with twins, the brother and sister are inseparable, feel each other’s feelings, think each other’s thoughts, are two humans in one. Nicolas insists he can remember his sister’s foot in his face in the womb. Neither wants to know which was born first. They’re equal and a solid unit, brought closer still by their lack of formal parenting. Their affection for each other took up the slack for an absent father and mother who deserted them.

At nineteen, they still share the same bed. No, it’s not Flowers in the Attic – though there is a bit of unconventionality – but it is beginning to look as though their lives will never move forward if one of them doesn’t take a big breath and make the break. Nouschka is the one who wakes up to reality. Signing up for night school, she starts taking classes to earn her high school diploma. Having dropped out with Nicolas at 16, she watched as her brother made a life out of petty theft, spending her free time hanging out with him and his friends. Nouschka wants more. A hand to mouth existence, and leftover celebrity from their childhood as the offspring of the iconic Etienne, aren’t solid building blocks for a happy future. Her maturity is the one difference she has with her brother.

Heather O’Neill chooses Nouschka as her narrator. It’s Nouschka who sees she’s trapped, who knows she can’t continue relying on her brother and grandfather forever. Growing up with a father who needed them only onstage, as cute props for his act – otherwise visiting only on birthdays – she doesn’t want this screwed up family dynamic to spill over, ruining the rest of her own life. Nicolas is already all but a lost cause. He makes fun of her, is hurt she’s trying to make something of herself and simply will not grow up. He’s father to a young boy who dislikes being around him, who mopes and cries until Nicolas gives in and takes him home. Nicolas’s child support payments are in arrears to the tune of $ 3,000 and growing. He has no job, no prospects and no desire to change. And why should he? He’s fed, clothed and everyone knows him from the now dusty and threadbare fame that’s wearing thin, though he doesn’t seem to care:

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

We fall in love with these two, faults and all.They make us laugh, we feel their love and sympathize with their hurt at having been abandoned. When Nicolas locates their mother, our hearts break with theirs:

I wanted her to be proud of things that nobody but a mother could be proud of. I had wanted her to be proud of a story that I had written about a swan. I had wanted her to be thrilled when I dove off the high diving board. She should have been there to cheer when I learned my multiplication table. And I had wanted to be commended for giving the flea-ridden cat a bath all by myself. Those were the things that actually built character. They taught you that ordinary life was meaningful and made sense.

You could tell that she was a bit star-struck. We looked down on people that were star-struck. We couldn’t help it. How could we not look down on people when they were looking up at us?

Still, life is beckoning and it’s time the two moved forward. No one wants to see the split. Nouschka has to struggle, to sometimes fall, but keep her trajectory forward-moving. Nicolas hangs on as back story for a decent part of the book while Nouschka moves forward, though with these two the connection’s too strong to keep them apart indefinitely. His pull on her is strong and understandably so. He represents unconditional acceptance and love. Unfortunately, he also represents inertia.

Jealousy of Nouschka does not lie only in her budding career. Nicolas is threatened by her romantic relationships, as well. When she marries, arguably too young and for the wrong reasons, the rift between them expands. Nouschka grows more independent, acting out in ways that drive more of a wedge between them. Nicolas grows more stubborn, more self-defeating, while Nouschka’s life is difficult and, ironically, more and more lonely. It’s as though, even in their relationships with other people, it’s all really about the two of them.

There’s everything to love about this book. It’s so well paced it flies. Getting through all 416 pages in about five hours – with breaks – attests to how much I loved the characters, how smoothly the book was plotted. The more effortless the writing appears, the more heartbreak and hair-ripping it actually caused the author. The world she created is complete and rounded and all the characters are as real as the twins. Around it all is the question of Quebec’s secession from Canada but the politics are more personal than making any grand statements, save O’Neill drawing our attention to the fact Quebec has its own distinct culture. She lives there; she’s entitled. And we Americans? What do we know?

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is about love and family and the chance to get things right the second time around. It’s about imperfection being enough, sometimes, as long as there’s love. It’s also about happy endings never being guaranteed but making the best of what you can control. Life’s messy and a pain in the ass and, occasionally, wonderful.

And the book? It’s just wonderful.

Tactically, I’m moving The Girl Who Was Saturday Night to Shortlist potential. That’s POTENTIAL. It’s early yet but damn, this is one great book.

I’m pushing the Publish button. I let the review leak over to the second day by 23 minutes, mea culpa. On to the next candidate (and I’m not saying which…).