Books·Canadian

When We Lost Our Heads

A novel by Heather O'Neill.

Heather O'Neill

Marie Antoine is the charismatic, spoiled daughter of a sugar baron. At age twelve, with her pile of blond curls and unparalleled sense of whimsy, she's the leader of all the children in the Golden Mile, the affluent strip of nineteenth-century Montreal where powerful families live. Until one day in 1873, when Sadie Arnett, dark-haired, sly and brilliant, moves to the neighbourhood.

Marie and Sadie are immediately inseparable. United by their passion and intensity, they attract and repel each other in ways that set them both on fire. Marie, with her bubbly charm, sees all the pleasure of the world, whereas Sadie's obsession with darkness is all-consuming. Soon, their childlike games take on the thrill of danger and then become deadly.

Forced to separate, the girls spend their teenage years engaging in acts of alternating innocence and depravity, until a singular event unites them once more, with devastating effects. After Marie inherits her father's sugar empire and Sadie disappears into the city's gritty underworld, the working class begins to foment a revolution. Each woman will play an unexpected role in the events that upend their city — the only question is whether they will find each other once more.

When We Lost Our Heads is a page-turning novel that explores gender and power, sex and desire, class and status, and the terrifying strength of the human heart when it can't let someone go. (From HarperCollins Publishers)

Heather O'Neill is a writer and author from Montreal. O'Neill's debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, was a finalist for a Governor General's Literary Award and won Canada Reads 2007. The Montreal-based writer was the first back-to-back finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize: her novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night was a finalist in 2014 and her short story collection Daydreams of Angels was a finalist in 2015. Her latest books are the novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel and the nonfiction book Wisdom in Nonsense

From the book

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.

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.

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.

Books by Heather O'Neill

Interviews with Heather O'Neill

The award-winning Canadian Heather O'Neill author reflects on the label of 'white trash.' 4:44
The award-winning Canadian writer Heather O'Neill's new novel, "The Lonely Hearts Hotel," is set in 1930s Montreal, where cheap hotel rooms are home to heroin addicts and prostitutes with wild ambitions and vivid imaginations. 26:00
Heather O'Neill shares some of her father's offbeat advice that helped shape her as a writer. 7:56

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