Books

Read an excerpt and see the cover for Heather O'Neill's new novel When We Lost Our Heads

The Canadian author's latest book is a story of two Montreal girls whose friendship is so intense it not only threatens to destroy them, it changes the trajectory of history. It will be available on Feb. 1, 2022.

When We Lost Our Heads will be available on Feb. 1, 2022

Heather O'Neill is a Canadian novelist, poet, short story writer, screenwriter and journalist. (J Artacho)

Heather O'Neill, the Canadian author of the bestselling books Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, is back with her latest novel.

O'Neill's forthcoming novel, When We Lost Our Heads, is a story about two girls whose friendship is so intense it not only threatens to destroy them, it changes the trajectory of history. The book will be published by HarperCollins Canada. 

O'Neill made her debut in 2006 with Lullabies for Little Criminals, the story of a 13-year-old named Baby who is drawn into the seedy Montreal underworld of a local pimp. The novel nabbed a spot on the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction shortlist and won Canada Reads 2007, when it was defended by John K. Samson.

She later became the Scotiabank Giller Prize's first back-to-back finalist. In 2014, she was a finalist for the novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and in 2015 she was nominated for the short story collection Daydreams of Angels

O'Neill's most recent books are the novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel, the story of two orphan artists who start a circus, and the essay collection Wisdom in Nonsense, which is about the lessons she learned from her eccentric father. 

Set in 19th century Montreal, When We Lost Our Heads is about Marie Antoine, the spoiled daughter of a sugar baron, and her friendship with Sadie Arnett, a sly and brilliant girl who recently moved to the neighbourhood.

Marie and Sadie are drawn to each other and spend their teenage years engaged in acts of alternating innocence and depravity — until a singular event changes the course of their lives. And when Marie inherits her father's sugar empire and Sadie disappears into the city's gritty underworld, a revolution of the working class begins to foment.

When We Lost Our Heads will be available on Feb. 1, 2022.

You can read an excerpt from When We Lost Our Heads below.


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 out loud together, taking fifteen paces each.

Marie Antoine and Sadie Arnett had met in the park on Summit Circle when they were little girls of twelve years old. It was 1873. The two of them seemed to have been born with the same amount of thick hair on their heads. Except that Sadie had dark-brown hair and Marie's was blond. Sadie had large dark eyes that were almost black, cheekbones that were already high, and lips so dark red they looked as though they had makeup on them.

Marie had blue eyes and a complexion that looked porcelain and a mouth that was the lightest pink. It was almost as though they were two dolls that were being marketed to girls, one fair, one dark.

Marie Antoine and Sadie Arnett had met in the park on Summit Circle when they were little girls of twelve years old.

That day, Marie had on a white tailored jacket with blue embroidery down the sides. It fell just below her knees, revealing her white stockings and pretty blue leather shoes. Sadie had on a burgundy hat with a black ruffle. It was about the size of a cupcake. It was propped on her head uselessly. But at least it didn't take away from the impression her black velvet coat with burgundy buttons made. She had small black shoes with black bows on the toes.

The pistols had roses engraved on the handles.

A maid looked down from the second-story window. She was lacing up her bodice and whistling. From her perspective, she could see into the labyrinth and its clearing in the middle. At first, she doubted what she was actually seeing. It did not seem possible at all. There is always something surreal about children embarking on something dangerous. They are oblivious to the danger. They act as though they are about to defy all the laws of physics.

For a moment the adult is suspended in the realm of childhood disbelief. The maid broke the spell. She ran down the stairs with her bloomers on and her bodice half-undone. Her red hair flew behind her, as though she were carrying a torch.

There is always something surreal about children embarking on something dangerous. They are oblivious to the danger.

She ran out through the labyrinth screaming. Finally, she arrived there. She stood in the middle and opened her mouth to tell the girls to stop at the precise moment they both spun around and fired their guns at each other. As the two bullets hit the maid and she fell to the ground, the words alerting the girls to their idiocy were forever silenced.


Excerpted from When We Lost Our Heads by Heather O'Neill ©2022. Published by HarperCollins Publishers.

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