A dif­fer­ent kind of love story

FIC­TION

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - TARA HEN­LEY Tara Hen­ley is a writer and ra­dio pro­ducer. Spe­cial to the Toronto Star

If you were to go to sleep and dream of life in early 20th cen­tury Mon­treal, Heather O’Neill’s “The Lonely Hearts Ho­tel” is what you might dream.

The Giller-short­listed au­thor’s new novel has all the ab­surd, fright­en­ing, fan­tas­ti­cal qual­i­ties of a mid­night reverie — com­plete with de­pressed clowns, danc­ing bears, lu­natic nuns and smit­ten mob­sters — and with a sim­i­lar power to haunt.

The epic tale, told in short, ex­quis­ite bursts of chap­ters, be­gins in 1914 with the birth of two ba­bies. A 12-year-old turns up at a Hôpi­tal de Mis­eri­corde with a swollen belly, de­liv­ers a still­born-look­ing boy who mirac­u­lously sur­vives, and leaves him in the care of the con­vent.

Mean­while, a ter­ri­fied teen pays a neigh­bour to find a home for her new­born girl, who’s sub­se­quently aban­doned in the snow in Mount Royal Park, nar­rowly es­cap­ing death.

Nick­named Pier­rot for his pale skin and wide smile, and Rose for her red cheeks, the chil­dren are raised to­gether in Mis­eri­corde’s or­phan­age, their spir­its some­how un­tram­meled by the reams of abuse they’re sub­jected to.

Pier­rot be­comes an ac­com­plished pi­anist, while Rose de­lights the other chil­dren with her splen­didly strange skits. The pair’s bond is ce­mented when they’re sent out to per­form in high so­ci­ety draw­ing rooms.

Rose and Pier­rot prom­ise each other that as adults they’ll travel the world and mount an as­ton­ish­ing spec­ta­cle, the Snowflake Ici­cle Ex­trav­a­ganza.

Sens­ing their grow­ing at­tach­ment, the nuns keep them apart, but they can­not keep them from fall­ing in love.

Sep­a­rated fi­nally by the Great De­pres­sion, Pier­rot is adopted by a mad, lonely mil­lion­aire and Rose is sent to work as a gov­erness in a grand home.

When these ar­range­ments fall apart, both find them­selves driven into the dark­ness of Mon­treal’s un­der­world, where Rose be­comes the mis­tress of a crim­i­nal boss and Pier­rot lives with a pros­ti­tute, suc­cumb­ing to a heroin ad­dic­tion. Through­out all, the pair pine for each other.

When their much-an­tic­i­pated re­union takes place, it does noth­ing to dis­rupt the bit­ter­sweet mood of the book.

Great joy and im­mense sad­ness fol­low as their story un­folds, and the two set about stag- ing the cir­cus they’d en­vi­sioned as chil­dren.

It would be hard to over­state here just how the good the writ­ing is in “The Lonely Hearts Ho­tel.” For it is stun­ningly, stun­ningly good.

“The Lonely Hearts Ho­tel” is a feat of imag­i­na­tion, ac­com­plished through the tiny, mar­vel­lous de­tails she scat­ters across the page.

“They con­tin­ued to tour around the city into the spring,” O’Neill writes in an early chap­ter. “Colours be­gan ap­pear­ing ev­ery­where on what had pre­vi­ously been a white page. The blos­soms were like un­der­wear blown off the laun­dry lines.” Or, else­where: “The sky be­came darker and darker shades of blue, as if it were ap­ply­ing more shades of eye­shadow, un­til it was fi­nally suf­fi­ciently mys­te­ri­ous to go out on a date.”

And con­sider, if you will, this de­scrip­tion of the French cabaret singer Edith Piaf: “She stepped out onto the stage, look­ing as though her house had just been bombed with her en­tire fam­ily in­side it. She trem­bled while she sang. She held her hands up in the air as if ev­ery­one was a lover who was leav­ing her. Look at her! Rose thought. She was tiny, abused and drunk. She had come all the way from Paris with her songs. She was proof that a woman could take as much from life as a man.”

Ev­ery­where in this novel, wo­ven into the ta­pes­try of whimsy and won­der, are threads of sub­ver­sion. The reader never quite for­gets that Rose is the true hero here, ca­pa­ble of res­cu­ing both her­self and her lover, of match­ing the am­bi­tion of pow­er­ful men, and of meet­ing vi­o­lence with vi­o­lence. (Plus re­cruit­ing an army of fem­i­nist cho­rus girls to help her.) Pier­rot is an artist, his mu­sic the mark he leaves on the world. Rose is a rad­i­cal. Her life is her cre­ation.

Both re­sist the weight of their past — even as it points them to­ward de­struc­tion. Both strug­gle to be free. “All chil­dren are re­ally or­phans,” O’Neill writes. “At heart, a child has noth­ing to do with its par­ents, its back­ground, its last name, its gen­der, its fam­ily trade. It is a brand­new per­son, and it is born with the only legacy that each in­di­vid­ual in­her­its when they open their eyes in this world: the in­alien­able right to be free.”

All of this makes for a star­tlingly dif­fer­ent kind of love story. But one that’s noth­ing short of bril­liant.

‘The Lonely Hearts Ho­tel,’ by Heather O’Neill, HarperCollins, 400 pages, $32.99.

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