When We Lost Our Heads: A Review By T.S. McNeil

There is a strong social push toward order. At least in terms of western democracies, including those that also have queens, whether they want to or not. Even so, chaos, or at least a need for freedom, can be found in almost every human heart. Canada is a country with order baked into its DNA. The national motto clearly stating ‘Peace, Order and Good Government.’ A fine aspiration indeed that the nation seems to at least try to live up to. Complication, in terms of these goals, is the rebel province of Quebec. Very much the anarchist at the picnic for the first few hundred years of Canadian existence, the strongest French factor in the tapestry is Canadian life, has made its discontent known in any number of ways: ranging from the rise of a militant terror group known as the F.L.Q. to Quebec premier Rene Levesque refusing to sign the 1982 Act giving Canada full political independence from Britain arguing that Quebec’s interests hadn’t been properly considered. It is against this fraught backdrop that Canadian author, and proud Montrealer, Heather O’Neill has set her historical novel When We Lost our Heads

Not only a commentary on the ironic contradiction of Canada’s only officially French province, which was ruled by English interests until a series of mini-rebellions and revolutions in the early 20th century, but also fairly hefty metaphor for the French Revolution. 

Set in a 19th century Montreal ruled by the English elite, called ‘Anglos’ in the local parlance to differentiations them from a large Irish community, How We Lost Our Heads is a nearly forensic mediation on expiation and reality and just how explosively the two can clash. The text pays particular attention to how women and girls were expected to act in Victorian society. The bored daughter of upper-class elites who would have been titled only a generation before, Marie Antonie (see what O’Neill did there?) has everything she wants, but little that she needs, including love and a best friend. That is, until both come into her life in the form of anarchic trouble-maker Sadie Arnett, another bored daughter of privilege. 

Thrilled and disgusted by each other in equal measure, their chemistry is instant, and as explosive as some of the most potent combinations. Leading to the girls being separated by the powers that be, both leading lives of sweet innocence and excess to the point of violence, until reuniting as adults, with deeply disruptive results for the entire city. Pulling no punches, O’Neill, gets into it from the very first paragraph: “In a labyrinth constructed out of a rosebush in the Golden Mile neighborhood of Montreal, two little girls were standing back-to-back with pistols pointed up toward their chins. They began to count together, taking fifteen paces each.” 

O’Neill continues in this way for the next 430 pages, using a smooth, almost poetic, prose style to seduce the reader into reading more. 

Beautiful as the main text is, the most biting satire is reserved for the chapter titles, which follow a similar trajectory the story. Staring out simply descriptive in chapter one with ‘The Duel’ and slowly building in both intensity and intent until the thematic gut-punch of ‘Your Shadow Is On Fire’ before settling down into a deceptive sense of peacefulness in chapter fifty-two’s ‘A Room Of One’s Own.’

Born in the far north, T.S. McNeil was attending art galleries before he could walk. Earning concurrent degrees in Art History and Political Science, he has written on Arts and Culture both in print and online since 2002, starting while still in college. He lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog, and firmly believes that Marie-Gabrielle Capet was criminally underrated.

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