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O'Neill's first foray into short fiction a gritty, dreamy collection

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/4/2015 (2022 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

"Grandfather claimed to have been dead a few seconds once when he was nine. The story went that he'd been so cold in his house that he froze to death in the middle of the night."

'Impossible!' my brother would scream when my grandfather told his tale.

Heather O'Neill's collection of short stories is a hearty read for fans of short fiction.


Heather O'Neill's collection of short stories is a hearty read for fans of short fiction.

'It's not impossible at all,' Grandfather would counter. 'You get perfectly preserved when you're frozen. They defrost cavemen all the time. Even after five thousand years. The scientists buy them a fashionable suit, take them out for a steak dinner, and they're as good as new."

That is the beginning of Heaven from Daydreams of Angels, Heather O'Neill's debut collection of short stories -- a sprawling, wonderful, heart-catching book of storytelling.

O'Neill's first two novels, Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, were enormous successes: Lullabies won CBC's Canada Reads in 2007 and Girl was shortlisted for 2014's Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Both books were filled with dreamy, wildly irresponsible people who often told sad and fantastic tales. From the very beginning of Lullabies Jules, the father, tells his daughter Baby of his childhood: " 'We had fried snowballs for dessert. I had one toy. It was a chair. My mother put a wig on it and told me to pretend it was a horse.' " And Baby thinks: " 'I loved to hear these terrible stories, as they were like Grimms' fairy tales to me.' "

Daydreams' tales are reminiscent of those told by starry-eyed raconteurs like Jules. Some stories, like The Story of Little O, are straight realism and feel plucked straight out of the novels -- they're about poor kids in pre-digital Montreal. Many are set in the past, like The Saddest Chorus Girl in the World, about an orphaned teen girl in a '20s chorus line.

Some are explicitly fairy tale-like -- as in The Gypsy and the Bear about, well, a gypsy and his needy talking bear. And some, like the eponymous story -- about a dad going off to fight at D-Day and his smashing joie-de-vivre-filled daughter back home -- are all of these things at once.

It is indicative of O'Neill's tendency toward the grittily dreamy (see the title) that they blend together so deliciously.

Like her previous books, these stories are focused on childhood and youth, usually poor kids from the street who are just as (or more) self-sufficient as the adults around them.

O'Neill's portrayal of childhood both embraces and eludes the typical loneliness that tends to come with literary fiction about kids. Her children are gentle and not, bleak and not, desperate and not. It is almost vexing how she pulls it off without cliché or pathos.

Something in these stories accurately channels the real sentimentality and misshapen romance that children in trouble carry -- without being sentimental in the actual writing itself.

There is the fairy-tale thing, sure, replete with its grandiosities and epic tales, but O'Neill tends to flip that form too. Her characters hold on to their bitternesses, they take hard drugs, they have sex that ranges from experimental to delirious to emotionless to work.

They cling to unhealthy loves: "Violet's mother had liked ugly, mean men. There was nothing that she could have done about it either. Life is too short for us to fix our flaws. By the time we realize what fools we have been, we are, unfortunately, already dead.

But Violet realized that her taste for handsome, feckless men would end up giving her as much trouble as her mother's tastes had given her. The handsome men she dated were terrifying. They were so light that any wind might blow them away in another direction."

The short-story format of Daydreams is a more natural fit with O'Neill's style, who rarely ties up the loose ends of her plots. As engrossing as Lullabies and Girl are, they had their incohesive moments. Daydreams escapes any meandering.

Anyone who has enjoyed O'Neill's writing should buy Daydreams of Angels without further consideration. Others who are curious should pick a story at random and read the first few pages -- if you're hooked, you'll know.

Daydreams of Angels is hearty meat-and-potato soup for fans of short fiction, and is probably the closest thing to a book of bedtime stories that messed-up adults will ever get. Works for this reviewer.


Casey Plett wrote the short-story collection A Safe Girl To Love and had a lovely couple of weeks reading one story a night out of this book.


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Updated on Saturday, April 11, 2015 at 7:50 AM CDT: Formatting.

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