“TEN GAZILLION STARS”: that’s what I wrote when I first finished reading Daydreams of Angels, by Canadian author Heather O’Neill (Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night). I’m slightly embarrassed by this hyperbole now, but that reaction was genuine, born out of my deep appreciation and excitement for wildly inventive writing that smacks almost of improv. That’s not to say that O’Neill didn’t craft these stories carefully and thoughtfully, only that she understands relinquishing control to the literary muse.
Daydreams of Angels is magic realism at its best. It’s original and playful, funny and tragic, wise and clever. It is uninhibited while remaining true. Combined with the delightful ridiculousness are moments of striking reality we can all relate to, which is what keeps this collection from overloading us with only fancy and wit.
Most of the stories carry the tone of fairy tales, and there are a few liberally riffed upon actual fairy tales, such as Pinocchio (“Bartók for Children” is an exceedingly clever version that carries the same kind of inventiveness as the original, only O’Neill does it better) and Red Riding Hood (“The Wolf-Boy of Northern Quebec”).
As the title of the book vaguely suggests, some stories include angels, heaven, the devil, and even Jesus. In one of my favourite stories, “The Gospel According to Mary M.” (yes, that Mary M.: “Other people’s parents said I looked like a whore…”), Jesus is a Grade Six kid with what Mary’s mom calls “inner strength—a real screw-all-of-y’all attitude” who one afternoon finds the contents of his juice box mysteriously changed to wine (“‘Tell me if this apple juice doesn’t taste funny to you,’ he said”). Jean-Baptiste (haha), who says that Jesus has a Messiah complex, and Peter and Judas also feature on the playground.
Once when we were all in the back of the schoolyard and Judas was explaining to us where babies came from, Jesus positively spazzed out.
Now I knew all about that baby stuff, even then, and I knew that Judas was fifty percent full of crap, but if I piped in with my corrections, he’d be all “Excusez-moi, Professor Been-Around-The-Block,” so I made sure to keep my mouth shut.
But Jesus, on the other hand, started having a complete breakdown. He said that Judas was a liar and that if a woman hears someone whispering in her ear in the middle of the night and if she sits up and looks around and no one is there, she’ll be pregnant by the morning.
Interspersed throughout the collection is a series of connected stories featuring Grandfather and Grandmother (which have been radio-featured), who delight their grandchildren with fabrications narrated to us by the granddaughter. These stories are hilarious, for both the tales and the children’s reactions, and are about where babies come from (they’re washed up on shore by the waning tide, with their bums sticking up out of the sand so women can rescue them [“Where Babies Come From”]); dying and coming back to life and what happens in between (“Heaven”; the dead are all hustled onto trains: “The angels sorted through everyone, rushing about and chain-smoking cigarettes—for as it turned out, in heaven, smoking was good for you”); and about when Grandfather was a ladies’ man on the Isles of Dr. Moreau and dated a cat-girl, a deer-girl, and a swan-girl, and finally settled on the monkey-girl, Grandmother.
In other words, O’Neill fantastically succeeded in what she set out to do:
The collection I kind of conceived as a whole. I wanted it to be seen like one of those old anthologies of children’s literature that I used to get for Christmas in the ’70s. They would just have little chapters from Dickens novels and then a fairytale, and then an Aesop fable and then a story from the Bible. So I wanted it to be like one of those big children’s compendiums but then they would all be dark and for adults and with my own sort of twisted, perverted, little trademark things stuck in there. (Source)
Trademark, indeed. The collection is the misfit she often writes about but which has through obvious honing of her craft managed to find its own cool place. This book of imaginative, often reimagined stories is in a league of its own, not only with its original stories but also at sentence level. I dogeared so many similes and metaphors because they’re like nothing I’ve read before—in a good way that absolutely thrilled me. As a writer, I appreciate the hard work she’s done to cultivate this skill, which has totally paid off—so much so she makes it seem easy.
For example: “The old man was careful with his life. As though it were an egg balanced in a spoon in a children’s race”; “Little O brought Joe’s awful black cat to the vet. It was always messy looking and out of sorts, like a kid that had just had a turtleneck pulled off its head;” a bear in the first story, “The Gypsy and the Bear,” spins “balls around as though he was God deciding where to put what in the solar system”; and “they slammed the book shut, like a folk dancer pounding his foot on the floor to announce the end of an act.”
Streetlights are, from above, like strings of pearls; a boiler bubbles and burps all night long as if it had a huge meal and now has indigestion; a young girl with three brothers finds herself lacking (“It was as though there wasn’t enough material left to make another boy and so I got made”) and compares herself to the “last funny cookie on the tray that there wasn’t enough dough for”; and “The surface of the moon on a clear night looked all dented, like it had been out drinking and driving and had now lost its licence after a crash.” There are tons more, connections you might not think to make but strangely seem almost obvious when you read them.
As I hinted at the beginning, this book isn’t all fun and games. Artfully blended in is an also observant insight into the darkness of being human. O’Neill writes about poverty, loneliness, feeling like a misfit, the misery of being unfulfilled, abandonment, the mid-century views of motherhood, and especially the way girls and women are made to feel by the expectations of society.
“The Saddest Chorus Girl in the World” is a particularly tender story about vulnerability, objectification, and sadness. The final story, “The Conference of the Birds,” tells of a family of six on welfare (not the only story in this collection that deals with poverty of some sort), and though it’s well-balanced and told with humour and a rather sweet ending that focuses on the way we can survive by being close-knit and positive, it too was tinged with sadness for me.
In all, Daydreams of Angels is a brilliant exploration of imagination, desire, and finding one’s place in the world, a collection that left me feeling satisfied yet hungry for more. I have yet to read The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (soon!) but already, I’m looking forward to whatever O’Neill wants to write next.
For more on this collection, listen to Heather’s interviews on Q and All in a Weekend. (Her sweet, light voice totally surprised me when I first heard it. Her writing made me imagine something meatier. I love this juxtaposition!)