Threesomes and synthetic dissociative drug binges to the soundtrack of obscure punk albums on repeat could define a particular lifestyle – harkening back to Ian Dury’s 1977 song “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll,” now overused to the point of cliché. In the case of Geneviève Pettersen’s The Goddess of Fireflies, these things typify the life of a small-town Québécois teen in the mid-1990s. Originally published in 2014 by Le Quartanier as La déesse des mouches à feu, and already slated for film adaptation, this debut novel provides a snapshot of a specific aspect of Chicoutimi adolescence. But the story could easily apply to youth from any number of Canada’s less populous, lower-middle class regions.
In the wake of her parents’ divorce, 14-year-old Catherine and her mom are forced out of their family home (which housed a multi-car garage and an alcoholic father/husband), and retreat to a small rental unit and a reluctantly acquired familiarity with the local public transit system.
Catherine also acquires a boyfriend, Pascal, who initiates her into a new group of friends. These teens are in sharp contrast to her former “prissy” best friends: the group maintains a loose definition of monogamy, indiscreet use of “mesc,” and an affinity for loud rock ’n’ roll music. They congregate in a makeshift cabin in the woods, where all their activities can take place away from any parent’s watchful eye. Catherine thinks she’s having fun, indulging herself with her peers and a newfound independence, but the reader watches with dismay as she falls into full-fledged drug addiction, her family’s attempted intervention notwithstanding.
It’s unfortunate that Pettersen casts the teens as stereotypical – associated with a particular style of music, social standing, and clothing – but the novel also makes it clear that everyone coming of age in an idle, modest suburb is equally susceptible to such troubling forces. Though some of the story’s nuance is grounded in Pettersen’s use of regional vernacular, Neil Smith’s able translation doesn’t feel as if it muffles any of the book’s authenticity.
As a glimpse into the casual nature – and consequences – of small-town teenage drug use, Goddess hits its mark.