“The book was about innocence. It was about delight. It was about connection. It was about true love. It was about how the rest of the world does not exist for true lovers. They would murder, rape, and kill for their love, but it was celebrated nonetheless. And is that not a beautiful thing?”
I was riding a serious high as I turned the final (digital) page and sat down to review this book while everything was fresh in my mind. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, a five star read for me. I can’t remember the last time I was taken so thoroughly away to a world that existed in a book. That feeling that I had after finishing is the reason that we read and When We Lost Our Heads was an absolute masterpiece of an escape.
I have never read Heather O’Neill’s work before. I once picked up a copy of Lullabies for Little Criminals from the free library in my apartment building, but both times I tried to read it, I just couldn’t. I made the mistake of thinking that I wasn’t into anything she’s written. I’m thankful to my friend Dana who, as a fan of O’Neill’s, heard my experience with that book and assured me there were others that I would appreciate. On the other side of When We Lost Our Heads, I know that now and I look forward to exploring more. And I will definitely be giving Lullabies for Little Criminals another chance.
Marie and Sadie have the kind of compelling childhood friendship that makes them irresistible to one another even despite their differences. When their daring and dangerous behaviour forces a separation between the two, they turn to different targets for their compulsion. Marie, the more affluent of the two, uses her privilege as a power-play and to grow wealth and social status. The heir to a sugar fortune, she has bright ideas that she struggles to turn into reality. Sadie, who bore the brunt of their shared misdeeds suffers the consequences through alienation from her life as she knows it. She turns her fury into fuel for her creative dreams and her revolutionary art.
“But what is the point of contemplating cruelty once the damage is done?”
Throughout their early twenties, the girls move in and out of one another’s orbits, finding their own purposes and communities in the process. Marie remains elevated from the public and the realities of life while Sadie lives in an opposite existence, exploring the city’s underworld. The magnetism that exists between them never truly disappears as it thunders like a freight train in the distance. The reader can’t help but feel it getting ever closer on its collision course as the story progresses. What is impossible to predict was the web of interconnectivity that was revealed in the book’s explosive ending.
Set in the mid-to-late-1800s, When We Lost Our Heads explores issues of class, gender and identity in a way that seems unimaginable in our current experience. It addresses issues of societal tolerance and understanding and it also reveals a lot about the history of industry and, although not specifically addressed, the early origins of organized labour. I loved that this entire book was built around strong female characters who were bold and unapologetic in their actions.
O’Neill has an incredible knack for sharing her deep and diverse characters, painting a vivid setting and immersing the reader into the era. There is so much to feel about Marie, about Sadie, and about those left in their wake.
“The book had had its way. That was what a book wanted most: to have the most corrupt and devastating effect. To change the world of those who read it.”
Thank you, thank you, thank you to HarperCollins Canada and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy of this book. It will be published on February 1st and I strongly recommend you get a preorder in before then. If you’re interested in attending Vancouver Writer’s Festival’s Winter Book Club, it will be a conversation between Heather O’Neill and Claire Cameron on Sunday, February 6th and your ticket cost includes a copy of the book.