book reviews

Daydreams of Angels, short stories, by Heather O'Neill, HarperCollinsCA, 2015, trade paper, 354 pp.
Daydreams of Angels, short stories, by Heather O’Neill, HarperCollinsCA, 2015, trade paper, 354 pp.

“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.

Daydreams of Angels, UK edition, Quercus, 2015
Daydreams of Angels, UK edition, Quercus, 2015

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 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!)

book reviews

The Tiny Wife, by Andrew Kaufman. Friday Project, 2011, UK. No Canadian rights.

Not long ago, Jennifer Campbell interviewed Andrew Kaufman, also author of All My Friends Are Superheroes and The Waterproof Bible. Later, Emily Keeler wrote a review of Kaufman’s The Tiny Wife, as did Ngaire BookieMonster. And now, on the Advent Book Blog, you can see Monique Sherrett‘s recommendation of the short, small novel, too. I’ve wanted to read The Tiny Wife for a while, but right now you can’t get it here in Canada; at least, I’m quite sure there aren’t Canadian rights for it. Even though Kaufman’s Canadian. This is a bit weird to me, but I’m not rights savvy yet, so I don’t know how these things work.

Seeing my desire to read it expressed on Twitter, @FridayProject, an experimental imprint of HarperCollinsUK, very generously hooked me up with the gorgeous, beautifully designed and bound hardcover. The paper is soft, almost but not quite like newsprint, and it’s fittingly a tiny book in stature, and about a mere 88 pages, decorated with enchanting silhouette illustrations by Tom Percival that perfectly capture the story’s tone. It’s evident that all those working on the book had a clear idea of Kaufman’s story and the mood it is supposed to evoke.

Perhaps it seems silly to review something you can’t readily get, but the idea here is for me not only to review but also recommend something I very much enjoyed and, as always, support the author.

The Tiny Wife is the best in magic realism (one of my very favourite things in literature), a whimsical, fantastical tale set in modern-day Toronto. The story begins in a bank on the corner of Christie and Dupont. A flamboyantly dressed man wielding a gun and speaking with a thick British accent demands all those present hand over not money (“it was never about the money”) but the item on their person of the most sentimental value. A photo, a watch, a calculator…miscellaneous items are handed over, and the mysterious thief escapes. It is shortly after he leaves that the victims begin to notice strange things happening to them. A woman’s lion tattoo leaps off her leg and proceeds to chase her about the city. A baby fills his diapers with money instead of excrement. A woman wakes to find her husband has turned into a snowman. A man discovers his mother has become small enough to fit in his pocket, but worse, she exponentially multiplies, so that there are tens of her. And the narrator’s wife, Stacey, mother of their toddler, is shrinking at a rate she calculates will mean her disappearance in a matter of days.

Heartbreaking, tender, horrifying, beautiful, and wondrous, The Tiny Wife is written with engaging yet perfectly edited prose. Everything is necessary; everything is just right, so well crafted, that it is impossible to say the story should be any longer than it is. The narrator’s voice is observant but not detached, a little impossibly omniscient but to great effect, and also painfully honest. His is also the voice of a husband: this is not solely the account of the strange happenings associated with the mysterious thief but also the story of a struggling marriage.

“A modern fable,” the back of the book states, and it’s this in particular that got me thinking as I read. It is perhaps easy to read past the fable and be solely entertained by such an enchanting tale, but this book is not all charm. The clue is in the thief. Why does he ask for the most sentimental item instead of money? Why does he orchestrate all the strange occurrences, both terrible and wonderful? Why does what happens to each victim happen? How are these occurrences related to the items they’d handed over? And what does the thief mean when he tells the people in the bank:

Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please … when I leave here, I will be taking 51 percent of your souls with me. This will have strange and bizarre consequences in your lives. But more importantly, and I mean this quite literally, learn how to grow them back, or you will die.

The Tiny Wife is the story of a robbery of sorts. It is the story of a struggling marriage that finds hope. It is the story of how adversity and challenge can be to our benefit. And it is the story of how some people failed to learn how to grow back their souls, but also about those who finally understood how to rejuvenate them.

Watch the Tiny Wife book trailer!


book reviews

I love stories in which various unlikely characters are tied together in some way and often, as the reader hopes, come together, even if only briefly. The ways in which human beings find themselves somehow connected is fascinating to me. Often, too, these stories are told from the perspective of each main character; I’ve always enjoyed this. I can think of several books presented in this way, from Carol Shields‘s brilliant Happenstance to Julian Barnes’s humourous Talking It Over.

As for the unlikely characters and the strings of objects and/or events linking them together, look at Nick Hornby‘s A Long Way Down, in which four people find themselves surprisingly met in a strange location—the rooftop of Topper’s House in London—where each had previously decided, before they saw the other, to privately commit suicide.  More recent is A School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister, in which eight strangers gather together for a cooking class and become transformed and connected through the art of creating and preparing food.

Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, the 2008 Governor General’s Award winner for translation, is one of these books in which strings of events, objects (a compass that points only to Nikolski, a Frankenstein of a book with no face, fish, books, and the sea), and themes (namely, archeology and history and pirates), as well as one man, Jonas Doucet, link 3 young people.

Told from the perspective of each, the story unfolds in a surprisingly original way, with humourous yet touching prose as Noah, Joyce, and an unnamed bookseller come from distant places in search of meaning and purpose, but either end up meeting or coming so close as to pass like ships in the night. Added elements of magic realism, which I especially enjoyed, make the story all the more compelling and wondrous. Dickner even acknowledges the unlikely by blatently labelling it so, which adds to the humour (you can tell he was having writerly fun): an apology of sorts without apologizing. The description of the Book with No Face was so excellent I read it aloud to my husband:

The book had followed an unimaginable trajectory. After several decades on the shelves of the library of the University of Liverpool, it had been stolen by a student, been passed from hand to hand, escaped two fires, and then, left to its own devices, returned to the wild. It had crossed thousands of kilometres in various bags, travelled amid the cargo in damp crates, been thrown overboard but continued on its way in the acidic belly of a whale, before being spat out and retrieved by an illiterate deep-sea diver. Jonas Doucet finally won it in a poker game in a Tel Aviv bar one intemperate night.

Its pages were brittle, spotted with countless small rust-coloured specks, and if you buried your nose in it you could detect vegetation patiently endeavouring to colonize the depths of the paper. Not only was this Noah’s one book, but it was also one of a kind, bearing a host of distinctive signs. In the middle of page 58, for instance, there was a large, brownish bloodstain. Between pages 42 and 43, a fossilized mosquito had made its home, a tiny stowaway flattened by surprise. And scribbled in the margin of page 23 was the mysterious word Rokovoko. (Vintage 2009, 28)

Much like the Book with No Face, the story itself is artfully pieced together, layered and complex, weaving in and out of time and space and perspective. We truly get a sense of loss and questing, of disorganization and looseness, of being adrift in the great world without much in the way of guidance. So much of me wanted to see these three people come into their own, find a sense of peace and belonging.

While reading this book I couldn’t help but keep thinking of Nino Ricci’s Origin of Species: I think it was the sense of learning, of myriad facts, of the ever-looming character of water, that caused this. That story, too, though, is richly layered and somewhat similar in theme; perhaps a study of the two would be an interesting paper! (Alas, those days for me are long past.)

I also have a soft spot for translated literature, and this book, masterfully translated from the French by Lazar Lederhendler, blew me away with its beautifully rendered prose. The words seemed so carefully chosen, the text so seamless and smooth, without a trace of awkwardness, that it was though it had been originally written in English. I regret not having kept up with my French enough to be able to read the original work. But I do not feel I’ve  missed out in any way. This is one book I’d recommend to anyone.

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