When I began reading Montreal author Heather O’Neill’s latest book, Daydreams of Angels, I had no idea I would be diving into a genre I thought I’d left behind about sixty years ago—fairy tales. Her two earlier books, Lullabies For Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night were both gritty, eloquent accounts of young adults growing up in the unsavory neighbourhoods of downtown Montreal occupied by drug addicts and prostitutes. Although I knew her newest book was a collection of short stories, I was unprepared for fairy tales, despite attending a reading and book-signing by Ms. O’Neill at the Toronto Reference Library the week before.
I’m a huge fan of Heather O’Neill’s writing. She’s a master of the metaphor and I find myself constantly rereading certain phrases to further appreciate her skill. She has an exceptional imagination and it amazes me how she ever comes up with her strange ideas. While the stories are crafted for an adult reader, the messages could easily be interpreted by younger readers with a bit of editing.
I particularly loved “Where Babies Come From”. O’Neill’s narrative describes a grandmother telling her grandchildren how young women who want babies take a train to the seashore. New babies wash up on the beach when the tide goes out, with their bums poking up in daylight, ready to be picked up by young women wanting babies. She goes on to explain how most young mothers had a responsible husband at home who would be a good father, but many foolish ones picked a father simply because he was cute or funny. Some chose fathers who were out of work or had criminal records and those mothers often didn’t even bother to get married first and arrived at the beach totally unprepared. The analogies continue and I am fascinated by O’Neill’s ability to tell a fairy tale that is completely relatable and enjoyable for adult readers.
Another story, The Gospel According to Mary M. is about school children, one of whom is named Jesus who always searches out the good in people. One day in the school cafeteria, Jesus opens his juice box and notices that the contents taste like wine. That immediately elevates him to cool kid status and he soon has his own gang following him around. Judas is the trouble-maker in the group and Jesus is always trying to sort things out. The contemporary settings for these lessons in morality make them a wonderful read and I absolutely loved this book. If you’re up for peek into something very different that will make you smile, I recommend you pick up Daydreams of Angels. It was a fast read and an absolute delight. Can’t wait for more from Heather O’Neill.