If you’ve read and enjoyed Heather O’Neill’s novels before then chances are good you’ll like her latest book, because you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into. While I don’t know if I’d say I love O’Neill’s work, I do have a lot of admiration for it and when I heard that her newest offering was a historical fiction, I was excited. The Lonely Hearts Hotel is one of my favourites by her and I think O’Neill does an excellent job at historical fiction, making old stories into something brand new. When We Lost Our Heads did not disappoint.
Marie Antoine and Sadie Arnett become best friends as young girls, living in the same neighbourhood of the Golden Mile. This is the fabulously wealthy neighbourhood of 19th century Montreal. Marie is the only child of Louis Antoine, owner of a sugar factory, and the wealthiest man in the city. Marie’s picture adorns every bag of sugar in the province and Louis lives to make her happy. Sadie is the youngest child of an aspiring politician, a family desperate to belong on the Golden Mile even when they don’t have the money to fit. These two girls, opposites in many ways, are pulled together; they are both rivals and loyal friends until their relationship is severed by an act of violence. Marie grows up in opulence while Sadie is sent across the world to a strict girls’ school. Briefly brought back together as adults, Sadie flees the Golden Mile, leaving her riches behind to dwell in the Squalid Mile and move into a brothel.
While Marie and Sadie are at the centre of the novel, the story is actually much larger than just the two of them. This is, at its heart, a story of revolution and upheaval. The division between rich and poor, between the Golden and the Squalid Mile is deep and entrenched but it is beginning to crumble. The workers of Montreal are beginning to rise up. The wealthy are soon to learn that they may not control the world after all. Marie’s name being so reminiscent of the infamous Marie Antoinette is indeed not a mistake.
This is a feminist revolution. From the girls who work at Marie’s sugar factory in the Squalid Mile, to the prostitutes who Sadie lives among, to a young baker who crafts beautiful cakes, aided by a history of blackmail. This is a story of women who are fed up, who are ready to step into all the power they could possibly have. If you’re looking for a historically accurate novel of Montreal or a picture of industrial change in Canada in the 19th century, this won’t be it. There are, no doubt, plenty of anachronisms here. Yet, on the whole, the book feels realistic because O’Neill depicts something so honest about her characters. She recognizes that the difference in humanity dwelling in the Golden Mile and the Squalid Mile is paper thin and so on these pages she shreds that paper and shows how fragile the veneer of civilized life can be.