Fiction — print. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 416 pgs. Library copy.
Set against the backdrop of the 1995 Quebec referendum for national sovereignty, O’Neill’s novel introduces readers to the Tremblay family, a colorful cast of characters whose identities are entwined with the independence movement by a documentary produced about their lives during the first referendum in 1980.
Told through the eyes of nineteen-year-old Nouschka, the novel follows her as she returns to school after dropping out at sixteen with her twin brother, Nicolas, marries a mental ill man, becomes a mother, and attempts to wrestle with the meaning of family and parenthood after rather unexpectedly meeting her biological mother for the first time.
At the heart of Nouschka’s dysfunctional family is her twin brother, Nicolas, and their unusually close bond leads to whispers amongst the bohemian Québécois community they live in that the twins are incestuous (the fact that they share a bed at nineteen does not help matters). But Nicolas has problems of his own — he cannot scrounge up the three thousand dollars he owes in child support and, therefore, cannot see his young son — and his condemnation of Nouschka’s decision to marry Raphaël drives a wedge between Nouschka and her brother.
Nouschka has never been close to her father, Etienne Tremblay, a Québécois folk singer famous in the 1970s who is determined to see Quebec separate from Canada, and she is rather resentful of him for taking her brother and her on tour with him and for allowing the documentary of their lives to be produced.
The Québécois who watched them on television have a particular vision of the Tremblay family, and both Nouschka and Nicolas struggle to escape the identity of them as perfect Québécois children that strangers on the street affix to them. It is an identity that keeps them trapped — unable to grow up into the adults they need to be, unable to stop longing for the mother who abandoned them or the perfect Québécois family people think they have.
Gosh, the American cover is garish compared to the international cover, isn’t it? Not a color palette that would lead me to pick the novel up had it not been shortlisted for the 2014 Giller Prize. Although, the clothing worn by the model on the cover matches the quirkiness Nouschka and her community are said to have.
It is this quirkiness, this oddity that immediately pulled me into the novel. Noushka and the rest of the Trembleys are so unique it was impossible for me to resist learning more about their lives and, particularly, the outcome of Noushka’s struggle to forge an identity separate from her family through education, marriage, and the creation of her own family.
There are several points in the novel where the events seem ludicrous and unimaginable, but I also wondered if creating such an extreme in the Trembley family was meant to illuminate the struggles of fitting into a minority-majority society. As francophones, the Trembley family is able to converse with their fellow francophones in Quebec but Noushka’s limited grasp of English restricts her job prospects, her family’s lower economic standing limits their ability to travel outside of Montréal or to right the familial wrongs committed against them with their own children, and their vision of a sovereign Quebec — or, at least, the role assigned to them by the Québécois community as such — consigns them to a minority movement within the provenience.
Any one of these experiences could feel isolating but all of them? Is it any wonder Noushka still shares a bed with her brother? He is, after all, the only member of her family who has been there since day one and the only one she can call on when things become difficult. Neither of them has the parent they need to guide them through life, to help them feel safe and secure in their identity as minorities, and even with each other they still struggle to find their way through life.
All that said, I do think the novel could have benefited from some ruthless editing. The narrative drags in places due, in part, to the overwhelming number of minority-majority situations, and the backdrop of the referendum is often lost as the story progresses. Still, a rather interesting read given the recent Scottish referendum and the questions it posses about the formation of identity and the idyllic nostalgia affixed to missed opportunities whether that be having a mother or succeeding as an independent nation.