Daydreams of Angels by Heather O'Neill

ONeillCanadian writer Heather O’Neill has received many literary awards. Her novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006) was short-listed for seven prizes, including the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her next book, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, also garnered many awards. Daydreams of Angels is her first book of short stories.

The stories combine fable and fantasy and feature precocious children who live hardscrabble lives. Take, for instance, the first story—“The Gypsy and the Bear.” In it, a little boy creates two memorable characters only to abandon them when he is called away. The story takes off from there, exploring the gypsy’s lack of moral center and the conditional friendship of a kind bear. It follows the pair from country fields--replete with talking cats and hens marching single file-- to a city brothel. There the gypsy comes to understand his past and experiences empathy for the first time.

Themes of abandonment and childhood neglect are explored throughout this collection. Prostitutes and criminals play a major role in these stories as they do in O’Neill’s earlier novels. The characters mirror the author’s early life. In a number of interviews, Ms. O’Neill speaks of her parents’ divorce and the decision for her and her sister to live with their mother in the states.  When she was 7, her mother joined a punk band and relinquished custody. Ms. O’Neill was sent to live with her ex-father in a poor, crime-ridden area of Montreal.

But rather than bemoan her fate, she credits her father with providing a colorful palette from which to write. She laughingly describes sitting at a table with criminals and being asked to count the bags of money because she was the only trusted member at the table. Or, when her father discovered her diary, being reprimanded with the comment, It can be used against you in court!*

Daydreams of Angels portrays the bleaker side of Montreal without becoming Dickensian. Most of the stories end on an optimistic note, although they are tempered by the sad lives of children left to their own devices. Each piece is a small gem of wit, creativity, and the indomitable optimism of the human spirit.  

* North Shore Writers Festival, April 18 2015

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