In When We Lost Our Heads, Heather O’Neill conjures a parallel world drawn from 19th-century extremes

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You always have a master plan, until that plan starts to break down.

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Heather O’Neill was responding to the question of whether the intricate plotting of her new novel, When We lost Our Heads, required any extra-challenging drawing up of advance blueprints that had to be obeyed. She said it with a chuckle – perhaps an indication that, in this case, the deviations from Plan A worked out just fine.

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You are who you are, and as a writer, you have this brain that writes,she said. “And a strange part of writing is when, as a writer, you’re surprised yourself at what happens. Sometimes I still can’t quite believe how this book ends.

To reveal that ending would, of course, be unfair. But it can be said that, in her fourth novel (she has also written a story collection), the Montrealer has excelled herself. She has set the new work in her home city but, as we’ve also come to expect from O’Neill, such a simple definition of setting only begins to tell the tale. It’s hard to think of another contemporary writer whose deployment of language provides as much enjoyment per page, and she has taken her place among the highest echelon of Montreal’s literary chroniclers.

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O’Neill will be in Calgary talking about her book and other literary subjects as part of Wordfest’s 2022 Imaginary, which begins Sept. 29.

When We lost Our Heads vividly calls up the Montreal of the mid-to-late Victorian era, fictionalized just enough to add a disquieting layer of otherness. The title is partly a nod to the French Revolution, a connection reinforced by having characters with names like Marie Antoine and Mary Robespierre. But it would be a mistake to read the novel as some sort of historical allegory. Rather, it’s an exercise in finding hitherto hidden through-lines between far-flung epochs, identifying an undercurrent of revolutionary spirit that may at times be hidden from view but is never completely dormant.

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For O’Neill, her chosen time and place were especially fertile ground for the themes she wanted to explore.

Montreal was so strange at that time,she said. “It was literally under construction. Industry was exploding, the factories were making so much money, enormous wealth was being funnelled up onto the mountain. There was such a radical disparity between the upper classes and the lower.

The Montreal of the novel is a city with its own internal logic, not so much an alternative world as a parallel one. The Golden Square Mile is here called simply the Golden Mile, for example, while the poorer part of town is the Squalid Mile, a term that has never been in real-life use. In drawing almost equally from those two extremes of 19th-century society, O’Neill took some of her inspiration from casual walks through the streets of Upper Westmount – not far from where she grew up, and on the other side of the mountain from her current Outremont home, but in most senses truly a world apart from both.

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Even now I can’t walk by those (Westmount) houses without stopping and thinking,said O’Neill. “What kind of life went on in there? What was the thinking behind building something that grand for one family? they’re beautiful, those houses. But it’s the kind of beauty that’s always corrupt.

Such thoughts led naturally to musings on how history is written by the winners, and how it might be time to help redress that.

absolutely,she said. “Think about it: Some of those mansions are still there, whereas there’s no physical remnant of where the factory workers lived, because all their houses were built so shoddily that they would fall over after a decade or so and get rebuilt as something else.

It’s one thing to paint nuanced pictures of diametrically opposed social strata, as O’Neill has done. Examples are countless, as in scenes where elderly women go house to house in the poorer districts, banging on the windows so that the people inside will wake up in time to get to their factory jobs. It’s a still more notable achievement to bring those worlds together narratively in a way that never feels contrived.

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However hard the higher-ups of When We lost Our Heads might want to deny it, their lives are inextricably tangled with those of the people in the streets below. In this Montreal, the question of parentage is often hazy at best. Children go unclaimed, others are claimed on false pretences, rightful heirs and heiresses are always changing places with impostors, people can grow up literally around the corner from their siblings without being aware of it, and privileged men sow their seed with impunity to the point where many young people bear a suspicious resemblance to each other.

O’Neill populates the novel with a cast whose richness and variety are worthy of the 19th-century novelists she invokes. Marie and Sadie form the heart of the narrative – their conflicted relationship, charted from their Westmount childhood into adulthood and encompassing every emotion from hopeless infatuation to bitter enmity, is the vehicle through which O’Neill traverses the city’s disparate communities.

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There’s a widow who operates a pharmacy and is supposedly willing to put her wares to lethal use at the behest of her aggrieved woman customers; an androgynous prostitute who would have been called genderfluid if the term had existed at the time; a socially strving politico and his entitled son; a young woman who bucks every social propriety to obtain her own bakery in the shadow of the factory where she once worked.

Precisely who are the heroines and who are the villains here? We’re never sure until very near the end, and even then it’s not cut and dried.

At the bottom of the social pyramid, all but invisible even to their nearest neighbours, are the factory fodder, conspicuous among whom are young female workers whose lives are frequently marked by the loss of fingers in industrial accidents.

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Little girls were in great demand,said O’Neill. “For one thing, you could pay them next to nothing. Secondly, they were petite, so they could run between machines, jump in when needed, clean them out, remove things. That leapy ballet quality that’s so adorable to look at in girls … capitalism exploited that. ‘Ah! We have employment for these nymph creatures!’Their plight is all the more poignant when contrasted with the popular romantic view of children at the time.

The idea that childhood was a magical, unique thing, something to be nurtured, was in the air among the upper classes,said O’Neill. “But of course, that didn’t extend to the children of the working classes.

When those factory girls are stirred to organize and take to the streets with increasingly radical acts of protest theatre, their disfigurement paradoxically becomes a symbol of agency.

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There’s a link there to contemporary aspects of feminism,said O’Neill. “Like when the MeToo movement unified so many young women’s voices, and men everywhere were suddenly afraid of them. It was victimhood being reframed as something that gave you power. it was fun to take these kinds of things and put them in a Victorian setting. It’s a way of looking at what’s changed and what hasn’t changed.

The Industrial Revolution is thought of as a male-dominated thing, but that’s only because the huge role played by woman workers is nearly always ignored and forgotten. In the case of the girls and their protests, I’m also pushing back against ideas of femininity that don’t include violence and chaos. Remember, these were the early days of the suffragist movement, and of the idea that women might be actual people with as much agency as men.

Spotlight: Heather O’Neill will be appearing at three Wordfest events: Sept. 30, 6:30-9 pm; Oct. 1, 10-11:15 a.m.; and Oct. 2, 10-11:15, all at DJD Dance Center, 111 12th Ave. SE

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