Book Review – When We Lost Our Heads

When We Lost Our Heads
by Heather O’Neill

Heather O’Neill’s unique voice makes for engaging storytelling. Her interest in telling the stories of talented or precocious children, with recurring themes of circuses, repressive living situations such as schools or orphanages, special powers, and life-long relationships, make for books that read very much like fairy tales. In the process of visualizing O’Neill’s words, I see her stories as if they were animations of drawings by Edward Gorey.

How We Lost Our Heads is a tale of two girls in late 19th century Montreal, a grave accident, and the separation and then coming together (twice) of these same characters. In the interim, they lead very different lives, and come to represent two different ways of looking at the world.

Marie Antoine inherits her family’s sugar factory, and becomes a wealthy tycoon. Sadie Arnett is a sex worker who writes infamous pornography, her best-selling work, meant to be a story about herself and Marie, is even named after two works by the Marquis de Sade. In fact, the story of Sadie and Marie is littered with references to the French Revolution, right down to their names and the names of many other characters. And what occurs is a revolution of sorts as the poor women who work in the sugar factory, as well as the poor women of the city of Montreal, led by a baker who bears a striking resemblance to Marie, take up arms against the pair.

By making the book almost entirely about women, O’Neill shows not only the repression of women in the Victorian era, but places them in traditionally male roles where they’ve lost the softer feminine qualities of compassion and empathy and become more greedy, ruthless and selfish. Because of this, neither main character is particularly likeable, leaving a trail of hurt behind them, which propels them both to the plot’s climax.

The only marginally likeable character in When We Lost Our Heads might be George, the transgender midwife/abortionist from the brothel who is madly in love with Sadie. But even George, jealous of Sadie’s love for Marie, betrays her by speaking out against her to the angry hordes of women, leaving the reader with a conundrum – if women are as likely as men to betray one another for selfish reasons, are we actually as united as we need to be to improve our collective lot? Are we “sisters”, by blood or gender, or are we all just fighting for whatever gains we can achieve individually?

This was a major theme within the French revolution as well, and O’Neill wisely doesn’t attempt to provide an answer.

Playing on stereotypes, O’Neill keeps most characters within specific boxes. Sadie is dark-haired and dark-spirited, Marie is sweet and blonde, like the sugar in her family’s factory. Awkward George is odd-looking and confused about her place in the world, and the apothecary Jeanne Marat is old and witchy. Even the few male characters are cliches of type; Marie’s womanizing father, the rough factory foreman, Sadie’s misogynistic brother. I’d complain about this in any other context, especially because O’Neill really is flipping gender roles for most of the characters in order to propel the narrative, but it adds to the fairy tale quality of the work in a way, so it gets a pass.

When We Lost Our Heads ties up the loose endings with a few careful twists that are only half-surprising (in an ‘I should have seen that coming’ kind of way) but leaves so many what-ifs that, unlike the fairy tales O’Neill emulates, there are no real happy endings.

I’m not sure if this is O’Neill’s best work (nothing tops The Lonely Hearts Hotel for me), but it is most definitely engaging, thought-provoking and entertaining.