Tuesday 20 February 2018

Tragic tale of abuse, rebellion and addiction

Fiction: The Lonely Hearts Hotel, Heather O'Neill, Riverrun, €19.60

Author Heather O'Neill's 'The Lonely Hearts Hotel' is a spellbinding story about two gifted orphans who fall in love
Author Heather O'Neill's 'The Lonely Hearts Hotel' is a spellbinding story about two gifted orphans who fall in love

Anne Cunningham

Kurt Vonnegut once instructed his creative writing students to: "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them - in order that the reader may see what they are made of."

Had Heather O'Neill been a Vonnegut student, she'd have done him proud. Orphans Rose and Pierrot, the protagonists in her latest novel, endure the most horrendous atrocities imaginable but still find hope, wonder and magic in their miserable existences.

Rose and Pierrot are orphans in 1920s Montreal, raised by nuns in an orphanage where the regime is unflinchingly brutal. Pierrot is sexually abused from an early age by Sr Eloise.

Recognising that he and Rose have a special affinity, Sr Eloise singles Rose out for some especially savage treatment. But nothing can crush the spirit of either child. Rose is a gifted little mime and dancer. Pierrot, as his name suggests, plays the clown. He also plays the piano and, despite being self-taught, has remarkable talent. Their respective skills lead to them being hired out to the homes of Montreal's elite, as entertainment for children's birthday parties. But the orphans' deepening friendship is being closely observed by Sr Eloise, and they are eventually separated.

Unknown to Pierrot, Rose is appointed as governess to the children of Mr McMahon, a prosperous nightclub owner, who is in reality a gangster with a thriving heroin business.

Pierrot is lucky at first, adopted by Irving, a kind and rich old man in need of a companion. But when Irving dies, Pierrot finds himself on the streets and develops a heroin habit.

Rose becomes McMahon's mistress until she can no longer stand his brutality and ends up turning tricks in Montreal's red-light district.

This is a harrowing story of abuse, addiction and the loss of innocence. And yet it is charming, lyrical, magical and often funny. O'Neill's orphans repeatedly transcend their circumstances, fuelled with the hope of someday being reunited. Such material could make a slushy Hallmark romance, but not in O'Neill's world.

The streets of Montreal and later New York in the Jazz Age are depicted as vicious cesspits, controlled by the mobs and crooked policemen, leaden with hunger and atrocious poverty, steaming with gratuitous violence.

These are recurring themes for O'Neill, whose debut, Lullabies for Little Criminals, about the child of a heroin addict, won two major awards and was long-and-shortlisted for seven others.

Last year, in a talk entitled, "The Terrible Childhoods of Literary Giants", O'Neill described the horrific childhoods of writers like Tennessee Williams, Maxim Gorky and Rudyard Kipling.

She said: "Hating your life is an acceptance of your circumstance. To love your life is an act of rebellion."

Her standpoint probably explains the joie de vivre within the pages of this book. There is fragile beauty and childish fascination and even fun within the seediest of her scenes. It reads like a poetic act of rebellion, framed, ultimately, within the mob's favourite mantra - revenge is a dish best eaten cold.

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