Book Review: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins Publishers, 2017)

I’ve read all of Heather O’Neill’s published work and reviewed two of them here. (Daydream of Angels  and Lullabies for Little Criminals) Obviously, I enjoy her work and thankfully her latest novel didn’t disappoint. If you like O’Neill’s previous work, then I think you’ll be pleased with The Lonely Hearts Hotel.

Using Montreal once again as her setting, this time O’Neill takes us to the early 20th century, beginning in the 1920s, post-World War I. I found the historic setting worked superbly for O’Neill’s style and characters. Her work always has a grubby yet fairy tale-like feel and the 1920s and 30s seems perfectly fitting for this.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is the story of two orphans, called Pierrot and Rose. Both abandoned as infants, they are raised by nuns in the same Montreal orphanage. Both endure abuse (though of a vastly different kind) at the hands of the nuns yet it turns out that both Pierrot and Rose are hugely talented performers. They begin to perform in the homes of the Montreal wealthy and they form a powerful bond of love and partnership. Eventually separated, neither forgets that first and powerful love, or the dream they formed together of their own show and spectacle. When they are reunited, they quickly fall in love and work to make their dream a reality.

This story is dingy and magical. There is heroin addiction and prostitution, tragic clowns, a jewelled apple, and a complex web of characters who you can’t help but fall in love with. Pierrot and Rose make for an interesting couple at the heart of the novel. Rose in particular has a fascinating character arc and O’Neill uses the time frame well to demonstrate how a woman of Rose’s ambition suffered in a time when so little was allowed for women. Rose steadily develops into a woman of ruthless conquest, letting very little come in the way of her goals, and yet she manages to be sympathetic. I wanted to cheer for her simply because she had to work so hard to do even very little and to overcome the setbacks of her gender in that era. I think this is some of O’Neill’s best work yet and I hope she delves into the past more in her future work.

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

She had watched other women with infants and eventually understood what she craved: boundless permission – no, the absolute necessity to hold and kiss and stroke this tiny person…Where else in life, Mabel wondered, could a woman love so openly and with such abandon?

Eowyn Ivey brings a powerful edge to this re-telling of a Russian fairy tale. This is a story of motherhood in its many forms, a story of longing. Ivey captures these feelings so well that it made for an often painful read. Yet, a good pain. A pain that says, Yes, you are not alone.

Jack and Mabel are entering the second winter on their Alaskan homestead and are not sure they will survive, either physically or mentally. Early on in the novel, Mabel ventures purposefully out onto the not quite frozen river, daring the ice to break beneath her feet. They are struggling against the land, against the long and dark winters, against the rift that has grown between them in the years since their baby died at birth.

One night, the first snow of the season, they make a girl out of snow. The next day the snow sculpture is gone but a strange little girl begins to appear in the woods nearby. Mabel and Jack start to wonder if she has been borne out of their own longing or a delusion of isolation. Or is there something more sinister at play?

Ivey does a brilliant job of unfolding the novel along the line between fact and fairytale. There are hints at the possibilities on both sides and the reader is left to make their own decisions. Faina – the little girl – is otherworldly. Magical and yet with that dark edge that comes in to so many fairytales.

The story seems to expand as it progresses; more is learned about Faina, more characters are introduced as the lives of Jack and Mabel expand. The story takes a surprising turn but the conclusion feels honest to both the characterization of Faina and to the fairy tale element.

The setting of Alaska in the 1920s works well. There is, of course, the similarity to Russia in the long, dark winters, as well as the isolation and difficulty of every day existence. Ivey demonstrates both the beauty and the terror of the place. The paradox of falling in love with a place that can kill you but, if you know how, can also keep you alive. Perhaps even a little girl, alone in the forest.

It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.

 

Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

IMG_6117Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be sentenced to death for a crime in Iceland. She died by beheading in 1830. In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent offers a fictional idea of what Agnes’ last months might have been like, as well as what the truth may have been surrounding the murder for which Agnes was convicted. The basic outline of the plot and the characters are true but the details have been filled in by Kent and she has done a fine job.

The story begins after Agnes has been sentenced to beheading and is moved from imprisonment to stay with a family. The death sentence looms over her but a date has not been set so she doesn’t know how long she has left. The family – Jon and Margret and their two daughters – don’t want a murderess in their home but are given no choice. Agnes is put to work just as their other servants are and, gradually, the family becomes used to her presence. Along with this is the priest responsible for helping Agnes prepare for death. This is a young assistant reverend called Toti, who Agnes has requested particularly. He is unsure and unprepared on how to help Agnes but she slowly begins to reveal her past to him.

The story alternates between a third person narrator, usually getting in closest to Toti, and a first person narration from Agnes herself. This way the reader becomes privy to some of the details of the story that only Agnes knows and that she doesn’t share with anyone else, even as she becomes more comfortable with both the family and Toti. It’s a somewhat awkward construct but an effective way for us to learn things that only Agnes knows. Agnes quickly becomes a sympathetic figure as she tells us of her rough and lonely childhood and then the relationships that brought her to death row.

One of the most interesting parts of this novel was simply the setting of 19th century Iceland. While I’ve read lots of books set in 19th century Europe, I’ve only read novels of modern day Iceland and this was vastly different from both. The details about life on the farm – how the family prepares for winter, how their house is constructed – were fascinating and obviously well-researched and Kent does a great job of bringing them into the story. They never feel tacked on but become important aspects of the plot. For example, the practise of everyone – servants, accused murderers, and daughters of the family, male and female – sleeping in one room together. This is hugely different from the norms of 19th century England and obviously changes how the characters interact and how certain information is discovered. Or smaller details like the extravagance of coffee or how a hostess will help a guest take off his shoes and coat. Kent weaves this details into the plot with great skill.

Even more impressive, Kent maintains a great deal of tension right to the end of the novel, even though, this being historically based, we know how the story ends. The slow reveal of truth and the developing relationships between the characters aid in this a lot. I look forward to reading more from Hannah Kent.