Once again Heather O’Neill proves her ability to cut deep. When We Lost Our Heads is an invigorating, frustrating, dark, beautiful, terrible tragedy. As much as I loved Lullabies for Little Criminals, I think if I went back and reread the book for a third time I would be more critical of it now—both because I’m older and because O’Neill’s writing has improved since then. When We Lost Our Heads displays a mastery over characterization that O’Neill was only beginning to explore in that debut fifteen years ago.
Set in Montreal in the nineteenth century, When We Lost Our Heads follows two very different women: Marie Antoine and Sadie Arnett. One is born into privilege, the heiress to a sugar factory, and wants for nothing. The other belongs to a family whose patriarch is a social climber, owner of an expensive house but without much else to their name. The two girls forge an unlikely friendship until an accident causes their families to tear them apart. Years later, they reunite briefly and catastrophically. As their respective personalities crystallize around the environments in which they grow up, they diverge, reunite, diverge again—bad for each other yet unable to stay away.
Your enjoyment of the book will depend on how much you buy into Marie and Sadie and their relationship. I loved every moment of it. O’Neill grapples with the messiness of female friendship and attraction. Sadie is like a little Wednesday Addams, all “I love the darkness; the darkness is me.” Marie, on the other hand, is much more sheltered up until her father’s death. Their attraction to one another might feel like opposites attracting, but what I saw cuts right to the theme of the book: two women constrained by patriarchy (albeit in slightly different ways) drawn to each other like moths to a flame. They are both passionate to a fault, both needing some kind of release that they cannot get from other relationships. You know, from the very beginning, it will be their downfall. But you can’t stop reading.
Many of the characters are named quite transparently for people involved in the French Revolution, with their personalities and the events in the book loosely following those people’s politics and experiences. It’s clever and, while not subtle, also doesn’t overpower the narrative. Readers with more than a passing familiarity with the French Revolution will enjoy the reference while those who miss it won’t miss out. (The connection is also ironic given that most of the characters in the book are anglophone.) Yet this reference also highlights how When We Lost Our Heads is about class as much as it is about gender.
Sadie and Marie’s love transcends the restrictions on queerness in their time. It also breaks rules about class. Sadie moves effortless across class barriers, meeting Marie on her level while also happily slumming it in a brothel. She is a cipher, and Marie is not the only one to get obsessed with—and feel betrayed by—her. George, another prominent queer figure, falls for Sadie’s confidence and the passion with which she hates Marie when she and George first meet. Genderqueer, nonbinary or transmasc (labels are difficult in this time period), George helps Sadie explore not only queer sex but also radicalizes her politically. If Marie is Sadie’s muse, George is Sadie’s enabler. But like all of Sadie’s relationships, this one sours because George, like Marie, mistook Sadie’s interest for investment.
The wake of betrayal Sadie always leaves behind is delicious. She isn’t evil; she isn’t really even the antagonist of this book. She is as much a victim as any of the other women herein. Sadie merely refuses to be cowed by her victimhood—nor, I should point out, is Marie, and their reactions have striking parallels. Sadie turns to art and expression, finds her voice in slanderous speech; Marie seizes control of the one thing she can control—the sugar factory—even if it means aligning herself along class lines.
This brings us to the heart of the novel, the twisted and sickening knot that underlies every page. O’Neill looks at loyalty from every angle. What does it mean to be loyal in a relationship, romantic or platonic? To one’s family? To an ideal? To one’s gender, one’s class, one’s peers? It is impossible to preserve all of one’s loyalties equally, and it is the conflict between and the intersection of all these loyalties that is ultimately the downfall of our antiheroines. At first abandoned by each other and then seeking to remain loyal to each other, they each sabotage themselves, sabotage one another.
I enjoyed this book so much because it is actually a very simple tragedy. You know how it’s going down from the very first page—but you still can’t put it down. There are predictable twists and turns, elements of plot that feel somewhat clichéd—but in the way that a good melodrama feels that way. O’Neill has written a stage play but given it the depth and descriptive power of a novel, and the result is a trenchant work of Canadian historical fiction that leaves me with all the feels. I am really happy her voice is with us, growing more powerful with every book.