A totally surprising, whimsical, and powerful new novel, When We Lost Our Heads by Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins 2022), is a queer historical fiction that is a must-read this summer!
The novel focuses on the complicated friendship between Marie Antoine, the wealthy heiress to her father’s Montreal sugar factory, and Sadie Arnett, a clever and unnerving girl whose family moves to Marie’s neighbourhood with her politically ambitious family. The two girls become fast friends, drawn to each other through their mutual intellect and intensity, until one day one of their games ends in tragedy, and in an effort to save the reputations of everyone involved, the two girls are separated. What follows in the novel is a long winding narrative of the two women’s lives together and apart across time and across a city that loves, hates, and loves to hate them. Complete with a cast of characters that enrich the narrative, O’Neill paints a fantastical portrait of nineteenth-century Montreal in all of its tragedy, glamour, grit, and delight.
In short, this novel is one of the cleverest texts I have ever read. O’Neill takes many of the principal characters from the French Revolution and transports them to nineteenth-century Montreal. Oh, and she genders all of them female. And the majority of them are queer. Although the novel is a fictional and magical realist text, When We Lost Our Heads is well-researched and full of compelling easter eggs that reveal the historical depth of the novel’s construction.
Furthermore, there really is nothing like O’Neill’s prose. I was anticipating this novel’s release after reading her other books, such as Daydreams of Angels (2015), The Lonely Hearts Hotel (2017), and Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006), and I wasn’t disappointed. O’Neill’s writing is immersive and full of intensity, with hints of magical realism. The relationships, connections, and twists in this novel kept me engaged. I have never encountered a book like this one, and I’ve already read it twice since its release this February.
When We Lost Our Heads is queer historical fiction at its finest, and Heather O’Neill is one of the most prolific voices currently writing in Canada.
Content warnings: sexual assault, violence against women
Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.