Heather O’Neill was raised on stories about Montreal’s seedy underworld, thanks to her father, who grew up in the Quebec city during the Depression. While most of North America was dry under Prohibition law, 1930s Montreal gained a well-founded reputation as a sin city where the alcohol still flowed and the riotous fun ran past dawn. Saint Laurent Blvd. was lined with vaudeville cabarets drawing in some of the world’s biggest acts, while Saint Catherine St. attracted crowds of locals and tourists, not to mention the American military, looking for a good time.

“There were brothels and secret doors and booze and drugs,” says O’Neill. “It was notoriously wild.” The port cleaned up somewhat at the end of the 1940s after the American Navy threatened to stop its soldiers from docking because too many of them were coming home with venereal diseases, but the city of saints never lost its appeal as a party destination.

O’Neill was first inspired to write about the era’s grit and glam while in her early 20s. She became preoccupied with the idea, hoping to turn her various sketches of gangster-like characters into a book, but felt it was beyond her abilities then as a young writer. And so she filed her stories away and continued on with other projects, including her 2006 award-winning debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals, which established O’Neill as a fresh, exciting new voice in CanLit and a successor to Mordecai Richler as Montreal’s literary patron saint. After finishing her second novel, 2015’s Giller Prize-shortlisted The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, O’Neill decided take a crack at another story set in early 20th-century Montreal with her new novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel.

The book follows the troubled lives of two orphans, Rose and Pierrot, raised in an orphanage by malevolent nuns who viciously abuse them in horrifying ways. But the two rise above the violence, connected through some kind of otherworldly energy that especially sparks when Rose performs her mesmerizing dances accompanied by Pierrot’s piano. The two are separated for years, but reunite to fulfil a childhood dream of creating a magical circus performance — a revue filled with smart-talking showgirls and sad clowns.

While the novel could be easily read as a love story or a modern fairy tale, The Lonely Hearts Hotel also draws on existentialism and postmodern feminist thinking, mostly emerging through Rose’s radical thoughts and forceful nature, which never wanes despite the desperate situations she encounters throughout her young life. “I applied darker observations that I’ve had as a woman in the world,” O’Neill says. “So many of the issues that we’re facing now are exactly the same. It’s so frustrating.”

Although she reaches back in time, The Lonely Hearts Hotel also features many of what have become O’Neill’s signature themes and character types. There are plenty of drugs and sex. There is unrelenting poverty and heartbreak, gangsters and prostitutes, and an eccentric cast whom, despite their flaws, readers can’t help but root for.

While O’Neill’s previous novels both featured complex familial relationships, for this book she was drawn to the idea that people without blood ties could form their own family and be free to imagine their own histories, regardless of where they came from. “I like the idea of characters writing their own narratives, who previously had no narratives,” O’Neill says. “They have the ability to write their own past.”

Sue Carter is the editor of Quill & Quire.

Sue Carter is the editor of Quill & Quire.

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