Set in small-town Chicoutimi-Nord, Quebec, Geneviève Pettersen’s first book is a downbeat coming-of-age novel about a teenage girl whose life quickly spins out of control. A bestseller in its original French, The Goddess of Fireflies is narrated by Catherine as she navigates the eventful year between her fourteenth and fifteenth birthdays, a year full of change, violence, sex, substance abuse, and star-crossed romance.
The novel opens at Catherine’s fourteenth birthday party, where her inebriated father spontaneously gives her a cheque for a thousand dollars before totalling her mother’s jeep. Catherine is unaffected by the scene, using it instead as an opportunity to introduce the reader to her father, a crooked lawyer, and her mother, a former model. The pair have been bitterly and violently arguing for as long as she could remember.
While her parents’ marriage implodes, Catherine begins hanging out at the mall, “the hole,” and other hideaways in the surrounding forest for underage drinking and debauchery. Her portrayals of the kids she encounters are one-dimensional, but that’s not to say they aren’t authentically teenaged. There’s Melanie the bully, Pascal the heartthrob, Kevin the cool loner and Eve the bad apple. These characters are sweet and selfish by turn, and Catherine’s loyalties change quickly.
But while her friendships are disposable, Catherine remains devoted to the PCP-variant mesc, which she first tries at a party in the woods. Soon, her life is ruled by her appetite for the narcotic, and she lovingly describes the different varieties she ingests. Along with drugs, the novel is full of sex and music, with many references to nineties’ pop-punk bands like Lagwagon, NOFX, and The Offspring, and alternative rock such as Sonic Youth and Les Wampas. These are bands that reflect Catherine’s alienation, offering a discordant soundtrack to her drug-fuelled bacchanalias and teen romances. The music references increase as she falls for Kevin, a music and horror film obsessive with a pompadour and tight jeans.
Rather than being narrated from a distance, Catherine’s voice comes to the reader almost in real time, relaying each event immediately after it takes place. As a result, the novel has a breathless pace, moving at the frantic speed of an addicted fourteen-year-old’s mind. Divided into short chapters, The Goddess of Fireflies offers few moments of pause or reflection. Instead of depth, the reader gets perpetual digressions, and there are several stories-within-stories of Chicoutimi teen lore in each chapter.
In the original French, Pettersen prioritised using words and expressions particular to the Saguenay. Whilst we necessarily lose access to this unique local dialect in the English version, Neil Smith ably translates the novel into a more universal English teenage-speak. The original, like the translation, is liberally peppered with swearing, as well as offensive remarks against Indigenous people, women, and homosexuals, all the more effective in their casual use. Perhaps intended to shock, and likely true to the diction of a Saguenay teenager in the late twentieth century, this aspect of the novel nevertheless becomes pretty irritating.
After the death of a friend and the discovery of her habit by her parents, Catherine faces the consequences of her wild year. But even so she shows little remorse. However, during a fishing trip with her father on her fifteenth birthday we begin to see the first signs that Catherine might be changing for the better. As the pair return to Chicoutimi, they witness the Saguenay flood at its height.
The book, for me, ends a little too abruptly…perhaps there is a metaphor I am missing here, or maybe Pettersen was going for a sense that there is no resolution to be had – as in the sudden ending of Bret Easton Ellis’ similar depiction of rather more privileged Generation X-ers in Less Than Zero.
Whatever, if the previous book Six Metres of Pavement was almost too pat in its resolution, here I felt a little short-changed; though I note a sequel is in the offing…
That said, as a glimpse into the casual nature – and consequences – of small-town teenage sex, drug use and disenchantment, Goddess of Fireflies hits its mark.
From here I travel to the most easterly point on my Canadian venture, to the remote Acadian region in the New Brunswick Province. This area is one of four provinces that make up Canada’s Atlantic Region and is the only province in the region that is officially bilingual (around two thirds anglophone to one third francophone). Not keen to endure the 16-hour road journey, I get a taxi to Chicoutimi airport and take the 4-hour 17 minute flight to St John. the largest city in New Brunswick and oldest in Canada, I then hire a car and travel the 200 miles to the much more remote and rural area of Acadia. I arrive a little tired, but having had enough time to brush up on my college level French for the next book I Am A Truck, written mainly in English but with a good amount of untranslated French/franglais too…