When We Lost Our Heads – Heather O’Neill

Simply put, this is a wonderful book about compelling and complex women in Montreal at the end of the 19th century. Men in the story are mostly inconsequential, despite some appallingly boorish behaviour. Marie and Sadie are best friends as children, but theirs is a classic love-hate relationship (“Every decent friendship comes with a drop of hatred. But that hatred is like honey in the tea. It makes it addictive”). Marie is spoiled and entitled; Sadie is subversive and dangerous. Ms. O’Neill‘s writing is enchanting with exquisite similes describing disparate worlds: life in a brothel, exploitive factory work (the Squalid Mile). Female relationships are infinitely complex with righteous anger, pettiness and jealousy, and a self-absorbed woman who has no empathy toward other women. Powerful feminist themes abound: the invisibility of marriage, sexual awareness leading to female empowerment. And finally, anticipate a late plot twist and an extraordinary ending. This is O’Neill at her best, a Montreal noir story.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

The Lonely Hearts Hotel - Heather O_NeillO’Neill is a wonderfully descriptive writer of places and people, with sensational metaphors. This new novel is about two orphans who endure terrible hardships while growing up in Montreal from 1915–25: poverty and abuse and then the depression.  Much of the story is about vice (such a good word) in Montreal with an extension to New York in the 30s. The two principal characters, Pierrot and Rose, are both flawed and endearing, while dealing with fate and opportunity. This may be my favourite of all O’Neill’s novels.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night – Heather O’Neill

Wonderful storytelling of the remarkable relationship between two siblings, Nouschka and Nicolas, who have grown up without parental love: a physically absent mother and an emotionally absent father. O’Neill captures the francophone world on Montreal in 1995, leading up to the separation vote. The sibling relationship is amazingly close but they are moving in different directions: Nouschka is going forward and Nicolas is stuck in the present/past. Wonderful writing, especially the metaphors!