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“You always have a master plan until that plan starts falling apart.“
Heather O’Neill The complex plot of her new novel reveals when we lost Our heads had to have a harder time creating a blueprint upfront that we had to follow. Perhaps it indicates that the deviation from Plan A worked fine in this case.
“You are yourself and as a writer, you have a brain to write.“She said.”And the weirdest part of writing is when, as a writer, you’re surprised by what happens.”
To reveal its consequences, of course injusticeBut in her fourth novel (she also wrote a storybook), Montreal can say it’s better than itself. She set the stage of her new work in her own hometown, but as she has come to expect from O’Neill, such a simple definition of her setting begins to tell her story. It’s just me. It is difficult to think of any other contemporary author whose linguistic development offers such pleasure from page to page, and she occupies the highest rank of Montreal’s literary chroniclers.
O’Neill is in Calgary speaking about her books and other literary subjects as part of Wordfest. Imaginarium starting on September 29, 2022.
when we lost Our Heads vividly evokes mid-to-late Victorian Montreal.The title is part of a tribute to the French Revolution, and the connection is strengthened by having characters with names like Marie Antoine and Marie Robespierre. error Reading novels as a kind of historical allegory. Rather, it is an exercise in finding lines hidden between hitherto hidden eras and identifying what underlies a revolutionary spirit that is sometimes invisible but never quite dormant.
For O’Neil, the time and place she chose was particularly fertile ground for the themes she wanted to explore.
“Montreal was very strange back then.“She said.”It was literally under construction. Industry exploded, factories made huge profits, and vast wealth poured into the mountains. There was such a fundamental divide between the upper and lower classes.”
Montreal in the novel is a city with its own internal logic, less an alternate world than a parallel world. For example, the Golden Square Mile is called simply the Golden Mile here, while the poorer part of town is called the Squalid Mile, although the term was never actually used. Drawing almost equally from both extremes of 19th-century society, O’Neill drew some of his inspiration from casual strolls through the streets of Upper He Westmount. Utormon’s current home, but in most ways a world away from both.
“I still can’t walk by (Westmount) houses without stopping and thinking.‘ said O’Neill. “What kind of life did you lead there?What was the idea behind building this magnificent building for one family? beautiful, those houses.But it’s beauty as always damaged.”
Such thinking naturally led to a reflection on how history is written by the victors and how we can help correct it.
“absolutely,“She said.”please think about it. Some of these mansions are still there, but there are no physical traces of where the factory workers lived. Built the They are so crude that after ten years or so they are destroyed and rebuilt as something else.”
It’s one thing to paint a nuanced picture of diametrically opposed social strata, as O’Neill did. There are countless examples, such as hitting the . Tying these worlds together narratively in a way that never feels contrived is an even more remarkable achievement.
No matter how hard the upper part of When We is lost Our heads may want to deny it. Their lives are inextricably intertwined with those of the people in the streets below. In this Montreal, parentage issues are often a blur at best. I have. Children are not claimed, others are claimed under false pretenses, legitimate heirs and heirs are always replaced by impostors, and people can literally grow up around the corner from siblings without realizing it. Sexual and privileged men sow off the point Many young people bear questionable resemblances to each other.
O’Neill throws the novel into a cast with the richness and diversity befitting the nineteenth-century novelists she calls. Marie and Sadie form the center of the story.It depicts Westmount’s conflicted relationships from childhood to adulthood, and from hopeless infatuation. bitter Hostility is O’Neill’s way of traversing the city’s different communities.
There was a widow who ran a pharmacy, allegedly At the request of a wounded female customer, willingly puts her goods to lethal use. An androgynous prostitute who would have been called a genderfluid if that term existed at the time. A socially striving politician and his entitled son. A young woman who breaks all social norms to get her own bakery in the shadow of the factory where she once worked.
Exactly who is the heroine and who is the villain? We can’t be sure until near the end, and even then we don’t cut it dry.
At the bottom of the social pyramid is factory fodder, barely visible to even the closest neighbors, and prominent among them are young female workers who often lose their fingers in work accidents.
“there was a little girl very demand,‘ said O’Neill. “For one, you can pay them almost nothing.Second, they were petite, so they could run between machines, jump in when needed, clean up, and remove things. quality It’s so adorable for girls…Capitalism has taken advantage of it. “Oh! We have employment for these nymph creatures!”In contrast to the romantic view of children popular at the time, their plight is all the more poignant.
“The idea that childhood was magical, unique and something to nurture became widespread among the upper classes.‘ said O’Neill. “Of course, that didn’t extend to working-class kids.”
Paradoxically, their disfigurement becomes a symbol of agency as those factory girls are organized and spurred to take to the streets in increasingly radical protest theatrical acts.
“There is a connection there with the modern side of feminism.‘ said O’Neill. “Like when the MeToo movement united the voices of so many young women that men all over the world suddenly became afraid of them. It was the victims that were reframed as what gives you power. So was fun Take these kinds of things and put them in a Victorian setting. It’s a way to see what has changed and what hasn’t.
“The Industrial Revolution is considered male-dominated because women workers played a major role. ignored And forgot. In the case of girls and their protests, I am against the idea of femininity. include violence When chaosRemember, these were the early days of the suffrage movement, the early days of the idea that women could be real people with as much agency as men.”
SPOTLIGHT: Heather O’Neill will be performing at three Wordfest events. October 1, 10am-11:15am. and October 2, 10-11:15, all DJD Dance Center, 111 12th Ave. SE
In When We Lost Our Heads, Heather O’Neill conjures up parallel worlds drawn from the extremes of the 19th century
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