by Geneviève Pettersen1
translated by Neil Smith
Esplanade Books, 2016
“I knew that all the guys in the place were watching me,” writes Catherine, our 14-year-old narrator, “and that the girls would start talking about me behind my back. I didn’t give a fuck. I was the goddess of fireflies. I’d do what I wanted.”
The fireflies, we’re told early on, are the most popular girls. (“They were always together, those girls, and at school everybody’s eyes were drawn to them. They reminded me of fireflies.”) And now Catherine is their goddess. For much of the book she does exactly what she wants. The result, like many a good Quebec novel, is both sad and exalting, trashy and pathetic, with a dash of beauty and poetry thrown into the mix. This is a world of teenage kicks and mistakes. Of rebellions and regrets. It’s not especially shocking or repulsive, though (not enough for us to stop caring what happens to her), and the pages fly by as we look on and watch Catherine’s fate unfold in simple scenes that manage to convey years of teenage awkwardness and dreams in just a few lines:
“Obviously Kevin was the love of my life and he’d take me on a trip to Berlin one day. I remember I kissed him a long time on that big rock, and then it started to drizzle so we went inside.”
It’s a world of dilemmas (“I had to look sexy, but not sleazy”), of boyfriends that smell good (“like Bounce”), and of the relief that comes from knowing you’re going to make out (“I was so glad I hadn’t ordered Doritos.”). They play by their rules (“We all agreed that if a guy played the drums in a punk band, you went out with him.”), drink vodka at the mall, snort drugs from the top of the toilet tank at McDonalds, sniff gas, have their stomachs pumped in the ER, and despair at the choice of boxers worn by the boys they lose their virginity to (“He had a Superman pair, a white pair with a hole in the butt, and a couple of faded black pairs.”).
Neil Smith does a fine job of retelling this story in beautiful English that never betrays its French roots, although his rendering is occasionally more poetic than Geneviève Pettersen’s original, which, while beautifully written, can be raw and abrasive, often no more threatening than a teenager talking too loudly at a McDonald’s, but head-turning and slightly offensive nonetheless. Smith and Esplanade have clearly decided to Americanize the narrative, counting on the universality of the experience (Véronique becomes Vanessa, Lac à Joe Dalle is Cement Shoes Lake, Martial Bédard becomes Dan Bédard, and a nom de Canton-Tremblay is, memorably, “some other hick name”) in a translation that, for me, nails the tone when at its most foul-mouthed.