Walking the hypnotic line between tragedy and fairy tale, O’Neill’s latest novel (The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, 2014, etc.) follows two spectacularly talented orphans as they fall into the bleak underworld of 1930s Montreal.
Both born in 1914 to poor teenage mothers ill-equipped to take care of them, Rose and Pierrot are abandoned at the same joyless orphanage, left to be raised by the same joyless nuns. But even as young children, their chemistry is evident, so much so that the Mother Superior makes a note to keep the then-4-year-olds apart. “It was necessary to thwart all love affairs in the orphanage,” O’Neill writes. “If there was one thing responsible for ruining lives, it was love.” But like talent, their bond is irrepressible: Pierrot, it turns out, is a brilliant pianist despite a total lack of formal training, while Rose is mesmerizing onstage, a born comedian. Together, they enchant the city’s elite, performing as a duo for Montreal’s wealthiest households. For a while, at least, the nuns need the money more than they need to keep the pair apart. But the artistic romance of their childhood comes to a crashing halt in adolescence, and—with some interference from the sisters—their fates diverge: sensitive Pierrot is taken in by a fabulously wealthy old man who is enchanted with his musical gifts, while self-assured Rose is sent to work as a governess, looking after the children of a powerful businessman who runs the city’s illicit nightlife. Such stability is short-lived. With the Great Depression swirling around them, both Rose and Pierrot descend into a dark world of sex, drugs, and crime, each of them haunting the city in search of the other. Grotesque and whimsical at once, the love story that unfolds is a fable of ambition and perseverance, desperation and heartbreak. But while Pierrot is unforgettable, the novel belongs to Rose, a woman who—if she cannot carve out space for herself in upstanding daylight—will rise to power in the underworld of night. O’Neill’s prose is crisp and strange, arresting in its frankness; much like the novel itself, her writing is both gleefully playful and devastatingly sad.
Big and lush and extremely satisfying; a rare treat.