"I was trying my best to straighten out my life," says Nouschka, "but I always ended up in the middle of some festive waste of time." Play - in the sense of fun-making, as well as performance, or role-play - takes on numerous guises in this exuberantly written coming-of-age story by Heather O'Neill (pictured).
Nicolas and Nouschka are twins born to a Quebecois folk singer, Etienne Tremblay. Nouschka, our 19-year-old narrator, tells us that her father was "pretty famous". . . in the early 1970s. A chansonnier in a top hat with a "terrible singing voice", he was the anti-hero of bohemian separatist Quebec, whose childishly brilliant songs were memorised by every Quebecois. Back in his heyday, he would drag his children on stage with him to "blow kisses and say adorable things" that he himself had scripted. At the start of the novel, Etienne - aged and broke - is trying to rope his kids into participating in a documentary about his life. He asks Nicolas and Nouschka to allow the film-maker to shoot them in staged scenes of togetherness - eating sandwiches, roller skating in the park. The problem is, these scenes never happened in real life. Etienne was a bon vivant with a habit of landing in jail, spending his remaining time chasing the love of the audience. His grown children have had enough of their father's exploitation. They never knew their mother, who was 14 when Etienne seduced her, and were raised by a hapless granddad named Loulou. Naturally, what they desire from Etienne is a shred of fatherly behaviour. Nicolas is furious, while Nouschka is numb, and - when she lets herself consider it - rightfully sad.
The teens pair up with another boy named Adam, and the three dress up like "70s cocaine dealers" and unite to form "The People's People Party". Rather than real radicalism, theirs is a kind of absurdist theatre. At one point, they try to liberate schoolchildren from the schoolyard, shouting with a bullhorn that "only prisoners are forced to line up. You have been imprisoned without due process of a trial." The undertow of their playful lives is their increasing mournfulness about their lack of parents, as Nicolas and Nouschka begin to see themselves as handicapped by it. Nicolas has a child himself - Pierrot. In unflinching scenes, we see how the poor parenting Nicolas experienced is being passed down once more. Pierrot's mother, in a brilliant stroke of characterisation, is a cynical Czech whose strong accent makes "any rock'n'roll song that she sang seem like a strange ditty about the war".
The characters in the book are many, flashbulb-bright and memorable. But it could be argued that they are all really products of one place: the gritty neighbourhood near the Boulevard Saint-Laurent in Montreal. O'Neill draws the area as an outlandish urban wilderness: after Nicolas and Nouschka drop out of school, they are "educated by second-hand paperback books and madmen on Boulevard Saint-Laurent". Raised here, it is no wonder they are incapable, like their father, of any semblance of conventionality. Hugo Vaillancourt, the documentary film-maker shooting a movie about Etienne, posits the downfall of the Tremblays as the end of an era. "The Tremblays as a family were invented by the subconscious of a people prior to the first referendum," he declares, likening them to "animals whose habitats have been destroyed". Later, when a mangy lion meanders across the Jacques Cartier Bridge, the metaphor resonates masterfully.
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night bulges with metaphors, some lovely and others tongue-in-cheek, as when a beige cat comes down the stairs "like caramel seeping out of a Caramilk bar". As Nouschka's world unravels following her doomed marriage to a handsome schizophrenic, once a child star himself, her observations come like hammer blows: "There is nothing so wretched as being human," she tells us. "It's inevitable that you would, at some point, try to be something a tiny bit more."
One wonders what a slightly older Nouschka would have made of all of this. She is abundantly wise, but the narrative retains the slight lack of affect that a teenager cultivates: she is vaguely disassociated from all that she feels, and never really gets cracked open. This remains the book's only downside.
Meanwhile, thematic undercurrents swell - the repercussions of motherlessness, as well as the 1990s push for the Quebecois to be free from Canada, and from the English language. Nicolas and Nouschka are the beautiful, frozen, fetishised symbols of separatist Quebec. As they try to wrench themselves into being, their story is as entrancing and antic and sensual as a dream.
Amity Gaige's Schroder is published by Faber. To order The Girl Who Was Saturday Night for pounds 10.39 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk.
Kicker . . . O'Neill