Heather O’Neill’s short story collection is a whimsical assemblage
It’s a challenge to forsake personal bias when writing a review such as this one. I mean, to be fair, I’ve only met Heather O’Neill once in my life, but have been an avid follower of her work since the release of her first opus—Lullabies for Little Criminals—in 2006. Still riding the coattails of the success of her sophomore novel—The Girl Who Was Saturday Night—I have to admit I was a little surprised that O’Neill was releasing a collection of short stories at Drawn and Quarterly last Thursday. Ultimately, after procuring my own crisp, fresh-off-the-press copy, I have to admit that Daydreams of Angels was pleasantly surprising in other ways as well.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with O’Neill’s style—a very particular one—she focuses on the nitty-gritty of urban life through the rosy filter of childhood innocence. In Lullabies, O’Neill brings forth the character of Baby, a 13-year-old prostitute and burgeoning heroin addict who still totes around a suitcase filled with her dolls. She has honed the ability to write about the ugliest things in a way that makes them poetic and somehow beautiful. All of her novels also take place in Montreal, which lends a sense of familiarity and proximity for us local readers.
With the above descriptions in mind, I can say with all certainty that Daydreams of Angels is a slight departure from the author’s fictional norm. The collection is a complete flight of fancy, and the stories are bizarre and outlandish in all of their short-form glory. Strange, adult-minded fairy and tall tales populate the cover of this unexpected release. They also highlight O’Neill’s incomparable knack for metaphors.
Some of the stories are funny—when a sixth-grade Jesus finds that his juice box has somehow been turned to wine, or a story that describes how babies really just wash up on the seashore for mothers to claim; a scientist in the boonies of northern Quebec fails in his attempt to clone a chorus line of Russian ballerinas, a young girl contemplates marrying a walrus, or Winnie the Pooh sends a letter of apology to Piglet following his kidnapping—O’Neill dabbles in the absurd and imaginative, but also brings a sense of wisdom and an implicit melancholy to her writing.
There are the sad stories too—ones that make you want to implode with an overwhelming sense of grief or helplessness, despite the nuances of beauty and promise. “The Story of a Rose Bush” tells the tale of a French girl who sells herself to German soldiers just to buy éclairs. Other pieces dives into the daily life of abused children living within a cult, or recount the struggle of an innocent girl who fields the sexual advances of her stepfather.
The contrast and clash of themes leave the reader wondering how both creative personas can exist within the same person, and yet ultimately awestruck by the outcome.
Daydreams of Angels was released Thursday April 9. It can be purchased at most retail locations for $22.99.