Broadly described, The Lonely Hearts Hotel bears a strong resemblance to Heather O'Neill's earlier novels, Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. All are set mostly in Montreal's gritty underbelly, featuring youngsters in problematic, complicated relationships; all are love stories, but also coming-of-age stories and paeans to family. The central characters are smart, strong-willed, articulate and female; the males are mostly feckless, often addicted and sometimes downright evil.
In the case of O'Neill's latest, the central characters are Rose and Pierrot, born to (different) single mothers and promptly abandoned. Like all orphans at that time and place – 1914 and Montreal – they end up in the orphanage at the northern boundary of the city, under the "care" of nuns who believe hard work, physical discipline and a sparse diet are just what children need.
They are also both found to be talented artists. Pierrot is a piano prodigy and a brilliant songwriter; Rose can dance gracefully, athletically or comically, and improvise effortlessly to Pierrot's tunes. The child performers have a fantasy that, when they are grown up, they will form a circus. The orphanage's Mother Superior knows a good thing when she sees it and sends them out to entertain at the private parties of potential donors, where they charm the hosts and their guests.
Eventually, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Rose and Pierrot fall in love. Love among the orphans is forbidden by the nuns, especially Sister Eloïse, who has been sexually abusing Pierrot since he was 11. She beats Rose practically to death over some trivial lapse and when a wealthy Westmount man overhears Pierrot playing the piano and adopts the boy, Eloïse breaks the two up permanently, intercepting Pierrot's letters to Rose and burning them. Afterward, the Mother Superior sends Rose off to work in another wealthy Westmount home and the two children lose track of each other.
Rose becomes a governess, a gangster's mistress, a talent scout, a porn actress and a circus performer; Pierrot, meanwhile, becomes a heroin addict, a silent-movie pianist and a burglar, among other things.
I suppose this all sounds sentimental, but it's not. O'Neill's writing – matter-of-fact, street-tough, intensely alive and often wryly funny – lifts everything to … not realism, exactly, but rather to a dramatized version of reality, the narrative wrapped in her eloquent, elevated prose, with her trademark gift for inspired, unusual but totally apt metaphors and similes. "The top layer of snow had hardened and now cracked under their feet like the surface of crème brûlée, something they'd never had the privilege of eating." Another: "The soft sound of the rain on the rooftop sounded like young girls sneaking off in stockings to elope." And one more: "The heavy, heavy curtains tumbled down like lava on the side of a volcano." You could pick one off almost every page.
As with the earlier novels, there will be those who think O'Neill is too dark, too scary, too bold, too graphic. And The Lonely Hearts Hotel undeniably visits some very grim places and speaks in explicit terms. But she's writing about important subjects – childhood, love, criminality, sexuality – and dealing in a wide range of human emotions. Soft language does not suit.
The story is always moving along, often in unexpected directions. Rose and Pierrot are sympathetic and endlessly optimistic no matter how badly life treats them; you really have to admire their pluck. O'Neill's settings are vividly portrayed, from the harsh, ice-cold orphanage to the brilliantly accomplished circus scenes.
And the down-and-out Montreal of her imagination is as lovingly depicted, and as convincing, as ever – a panorama of nightclubs, seedy hotels, laneways and mean streets, populated by drunks, addicts, cats, prostitutes and a surprising number of clowns. (It should also be mentioned that, as in the two earlier novels, there is a fair bit of dialogue in unapologetically untranslated French. Welcome to Montreal.) It's clear O'Neill loves this city from the way she brings it to life, whether in the 1930s or the 1990s.
All three of O'Neill's previous books have been critically lauded – Lullabies for Little Criminals was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Governor-General's Literary Award, and later won CBC's Canada Reads; The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and her short-story collection Daydreams of Angels were shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in consecutive years. They are impressive works, as is The Lonely Hearts Hotel. Heather O'Neill is just getting better and better.
Jack Kirchhoff is an arts writer and editor living in Toronto.