When We Lost Our Heads, by Heather O’Neill

It’s hard to know quite how to categorize this book. At first glance into its pages, it’s a story of two exceptional young girls group up in late 19th-century Montreal, whose intense friendship is blown apart by a horrible act of (semi) accidental violence. Marie and Sadie both go on to live larger-than-life lives, and when those lives intersect, there is passion, decadence, and more violence. The writing is crisp, direct, and sparse, and the story explores, on many different levels, the idea of women’s power and what a revolution of women might look like.

I say it can be categorized as historical fiction — a specific historical place and time is indicated in the earliest chapters — and yet the book feels unmoored from history. Indeed, it might almost be described as an alternative history, for as the story unrolls we realize that while it might nominally be set in 1880s Montreal, it’s not really tied to the events or people of that place and time; huge events happen in the story that never happened in the real Montreal, and many of the characters’ names, personalities, and fates, are deliberate echoes of the French revolution a century earlier — as, of course, is the title of the novel. The novel’s momentum builds towards a second French (Canadian) revolution: one concerned as much with sex as with social class, yet one that ultimately feels smaller and more personal, less earth-shattering, than the real Revolution that inspires it.

At times this novel feels like a dark comedy; at other times like an alternative history; at other times like an allegory. It’s always compelling and thought-provoking, even if it can be hard to pin down.

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