When I heard that one of my favourite Canadian authors, Heather O’Neill was releasing a new book in April, my name was among the first on the waitlist at the library. Like her other books, When We Lost Our Heads is set in Montreal; this time it’s in the 1870s but her characters are just as fascinating as in her earlier books.
The two main protagonists, Marie Antoine and Sadie Arnett are tragic soul mates. As precocious twelve-year-old girls, they play a dangerous game with duelling pistols that results in the tragic death of one of Marie’s maids. Marie’s wealthy father buys off local authorities and Sadie’s parents whisk her off to a strict boarding school in England where she languishes for nine years.
The book starts off with lots of excitement when the maid is accidentally murdered but after that dramatic incident, the plot drags. For nearly the next third of the book, we follow the girls’ journeys growing up separate from each other and missing the special bond they had together.
Heather O’Neill loves descriptive metaphors and her gift of delivering at least one on each page kept me reading. With more than four hundred pages, I was treated to more than four hundred beautiful metaphors. By the time I was halfway through the book, the girls reconnected as adult women in Montreal. They were able to rebuild their relationship and use their combined life experiences to create an ideal world only they could occupy. That’s when the book started to get interesting.
When We Lost Our Heads is a feminist manifesto set in the nineteenth century. Women were second-class citizens, beholden to their husbands and without the freedoms we enjoy today. Despite the fact poor women worked long hours at dirty, demanding factory jobs, they were regarded as secondary citizens with little to no rights. Thanks to the industrial revolution, even small children toiled alongside their mothers in dangerous and oppressive factories.
As a precious only child, Marie Antoine was in line to inherit her father’s large sugar factory that employed hundreds of these women and children. She grew up spoiled and sheltered from the difficulties and privations experienced by the people who worked in her father’s factory. Even her name was reminiscent of the famous “Let them eat cake” Marie Antoinette. It was because of her elevated social and economic status that she was able to indulge in her love affair with her friend Sadie Arnett without reproach.
Complications arise when one of the illegitimate children (coincidentally named Mary) of Marie’s father begins to encroach on her privileged life. A feminist ahead of her time, Mary refuses to accept her lower status and plots to claim her rights. The story at times reads like a lesbian bodice-ripper but O’Neill’s beautiful writing elevates it to the kind of story told in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale”.
O’Neill’s writing is like reading a fairy tale; she is a truly gifted wordsmith. When We Lost Our Heads is somewhat different from her earlier books, Lullabies For Little Criminals, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, and The Lonely Hearts Hotel (all of which I loved), but equally engrossing. Her main characters are less sympathetic this time but always fascinating. We keep hoping for redemption and justice which ultimately comes but whether it is what you want is up to you, the reader, to decide.
I recommend this book with a couple of qualifications. Be patient with the first third of the book as not much happens but you need to read it for context. When Sadie returns to Montreal, it really picks up and the last half is a genuine page-turner. If anyone else has read this book, I’d like to know what you thought about it. I’m glad I read When We Lost Our Heads and I did enjoy it. Heather O’Neill is an unusual writer.