Heather O’Neill – whose first book, Lullabies for Little Criminals, won CBC’s Canada Reads competition in 2007 and whose second, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, was shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize – ventures into the more fractured form of the short story in Daydreams of Angels. Though still a voice for the gritty, lively histories of Montreal’s underbelly, O’Neill finds ample room to grow in a collection that seeks to celebrate the magic and madness of those often relegated to society’s margins.
A quiet spirituality courses through these nuanced portraits. Whether they appear as angels, figments of our imaginations, or, as in “The Holy Dove Parade,” charismatic punks accused of being cult leaders, O’Neill’s characters are always a bit otherworldly. The characters’ unorthodox ways of living often result in punishment and ridicule. But their stories bring joy or solace to those who are open to their strange wisdoms. In “The Man Without a Heart,” for instance, a charming and profound heroin addict becomes a temporary father figure to a shy outcast with an overworked mother.
The stories sometimes blossom into surrealism and fantasy. In “The Isles of Dr. Moreau,” rapt children learn from their grandfather that they may not be totally human. Literary and historical figures such as Jesus, Ferdinand the bull, and Rudolf Nureyev are reimagined into weird, modern stories. The book’s highlight is the darkly humorous “The Story of Little O,” an experimental and telegraphic rendering of a young Marquis de Sade.
O’Neill writes evenly and abundantly, taking care that the stories’ themes interlock and support each other. Some stories, like the android romance “The Dreamlife of Toasters,” seem superfluous, but overall the writing is consistent and easygoing, peppered with affable musings and metaphors.
“She found odd things beautiful instead of ugly,” writes O’Neill of Violet, the protagonist of “The Saddest Chorus Girl in the World.” Violet’s appreciation for the neglected treasures of the world mirrors the author’s. Most importantly, O’Neill achieves what she intends to do here: to recognize, even revere, the eccentric, unsettling, and misunderstood spirits we all encounter.