Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Heather O'Neill's collection of short stories, Daydreams of Angels, is truly on par with her highly acclaimed novels Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl who was Saturday Night. As in her novels, O'Neill's short stories are told primarily through the voice of youth and mostly against the gritty backdrop of working-class Montreal. While none of the stories in the collection fall short of what we have come to expect from this highly talented Montreal writer, four stories stand heads and shoulders above the rest.
The Conference of the Birds, the last story in the collection, is clearly the strongest. In it, a welfare family with four quadruplet siblings face the imminent threat of eviction from their apartment. The siblings adopt a defensive ring around their dysfunctional but caring parents. The children bond together to live life to its fullest despite the abject poverty surrounding them, and in doing so raise the ire of their neighbours and the building's landlord. For the most part, their antics are harmless, e.g., one of the brothers lives out his artistic impulses by drawing in chalk, nude people in sexual positions on the sidewalk. Later, the children expropriate from the building's basement what they assume is an abandoned wheelchair, which they use to wheel their obese diabetes-ridden father around the neighbourhood. The landlord of course cries theft, and the joy ride takes a bad turn when from his new "chariot," their rather inebriated father berates the passersby. In a particular moving passage, the narrator, the only girl in the family, embarks on a quest to collect 170 Coca-Cola cans so that the family can use the dollar-off-rides coupons printed on the cans for rides at the local amusement park, and what a day they have! O'Neill proves her mettle as a writer in turning perception inside-out with the twist of a single phrase. When the charges by the landlord to support eviction are read out in court, it is easy to understand why outsiders have written off the parents as “losers” and the children as juvenile delinquents. One accusation by the landlord is that the daughter in the family has hung dolls by their necks from the jungle gym—indeed a macabre display by a twisted mind. Or is it? The young girl simply looks at her brothers in disbelief and wonders “So what the hell is so wrong with hanging dolls?”—and the innocence of the girl of 170 Coke cans melts your heart.
What also marks O'Neill's latest work is the blending of the voices of children with the worldly wisdom of an older generation. Two stories, both set in Occupied France, exemplify this. In The Story of a Rose Bush, a Parisian-born grandmother, who in her overdose of make-up appears buffoonish to her young grandchildren, relates an extraordinary account of her harsh adolescence during the war. This elevates the older woman to an entirely new level in the eyes of the children. When the grandmother's father, suspected as being a Jew is deported from Paris to a concentration camp, his fifteen-year-old daughter (the grandmother) seeks refuge with the family's maid. The maid's daughter, Marie, is the same age as the young girl, and the two are friends. The girl convinces Marie's family to shelter her, promising that when her father returns, he will compensate them. As the war drags on and none of the deported return home, Marie's family begins to see the girl only as a burden. Marie herself starts to resent her. Despite this abuse, the girl falls madly in love with Marie and prostitutes herself to German officers in order to buy gifts to win over Marie's family and gain her friend's love. The war ends, and the girl is denounced as a collaborator by Marie and her family. In a few short pages, this story of abuse, love and betrayal pushes the boundaries of sexuality, survivalist morals and irrational love as much as any contemporary narrative could.
Similarly in Bartok for Children, O'Neill zooms in on the very adult theme of the painful absence of biological parental love and subsequent redemption through the love of a very unusual surrogate parent. The nameless protagonist in this story is a womanizing French-Canadian soldier spying in France. He is betrayed by a paramour to the Germans who shoot him, leaving him for dead in the forest. In the best tradition of magical realism, a group of children find him and take him to a toymaker. The childless toymaker restores the young soldier to life by inserting in him a mechanical heart, and adopts him as a son. The toymaker and the children adore the young soldier, but the scars of the latter's neglected childhood run too deep for him to return their love. As soon as he can, he abandons them. Back in England, he trades on his “hero” status to indulge in emotionless trysts with a slew of fawning women. It is only when he voluntarily returns to spy in France and is captured and then tortured by the Germans that he realizes how much he really loves his toymaker father. Heroically, he resists as long as he can his interrogators' brutal efforts to extract the toymaker's name. As with many of her allegories in the collection, O'Neill's plume brings a simple beauty to her contemporary tale of Pinocchio and Master Gespetto.
In “A Man without a Heart,” the theme of abandonment and redemption through surrogacy is replayed in east-end Montreal. Lionel, a well-educated heroin addict befriends Michal, the shy son of his girlfriend Andrea. When Lionel driven by his addiction begins to steal from Andrea, she tosses him out. Eventually, she permits him to continue to see Michal who adores Lionel. While Lionel cannot save himself, he imparts in Michal the knowledge that enables the boy to succeed in life. As in The Conference of the Birds, O'Neill challenges the readers' prejudices about social outcasts. Her story-telling is bereft of victimization, judgementalism and political correctness. And she has a knack for turning white trash into alabaster, albeit somewhat chipped at times.
Daydreams of Angels is published by HarperCollins Canada.