2019 Book Reviews
Heather O’Neill: Wisdom in Nonsense – Invaluable Lessons from my Father (non fiction) and The Lonely Hearts Hotel (fiction) reviewed by Annette Reinhart
There is no mystery where Heather O’Neill gets her fantastical and subversive ideas once you read Wisdom in Nonsense – Invaluable Lessons from my Father. This slim publication contains a list of advice her unconventional father gave her such as “Never Tell Anyone What Your Parents Do For a Living”. The reason for that advisory becomes clear as Heather O’Neill describes how her dad grew up in 1930s Montreal amidst the heyday of bars, prostitution and corrupt gangsters. As a poor, scrappy Irish kid, her dad assisted petty criminals for money and goods and became streetwise in the ways of the underworld. As a single dad, he worked as a janitor while raising Heather; he regaled her daily with tall tales and brash lies from his youthful days, and surrounded her with a community of misfits and homemade adventures – occasionally shoplifting for luxury goods to please her.
Based on the period of her father’s wild youth, Heather O’Neill’s most recent novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel spins a carnivalesque narrative set in those raucous times. 1930s Catholic Montreal was a time when unwed mothers were sent to institutions where they waited out their pregnancies then, after birthing, most were severed from any contact with their child. The Lonely Hearts Hotel begins with two such orphans, Pierrot and Rose, neither of whom has any idea of their heritage but come to bond together during their orphanage upbringing. Both had lucrative talents which were discovered and farmed out as entertainment in salons of the wealthy. After leaving the institution, each has a twisted journey of dramatic ups and downs before reuniting again.
The surprising thing about this novel is how the author takes a playful, whimsical approach to some very brutal realities her vulnerable characters encounter. This switch between fairy-tale mode and gritty street life gives a fable-like quality to her story that runs the gamut of enthralling spectacles, dark humanity, and unexpected gender roles. These children grow up with much more to deal with than they should. They are survivors restructuring the conventional definition of family much like Heather O’Neill’s own experience, “My dad had all sorts of ideas about what family was and none had to do with biology. A family was a group of trusted associates.”
This is a both magical and grim tale that tackles escape from class and gender expectations as well as traumatic abuse. This isn’t really a combination that should work, being simultaneously life affirming and heartbreaking – but it certainly does in Heather O’Neill’s very creative handling.