Book Review

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

a great novel but mainly me whinging about winter

I love a good novel.

I read while I walk, which is about to become frequently impossible due to the beginning harshness of the nastiest bit of the Canadian winter.

There is snow on the ground, snow in the air and temperatures so low that I need to keep every scrap of skin beneath warm, downy fabric to combat the risk of frostbite. I’m exaggerating the risks to myself (I won’t get frostbite unless I fall asleep in the street, which is unlikely given how dull and well-behaved I’ve been recently), but the risks of sub zero temperatures are real. The risks of temperature-related injury and illness are not a myth.

Of course, the people most affected by cold weather are people who live within it: people who are homeless, or people who (for whatever reason) spend the majority of their waking hours outside.

Ice is a risk that can cause very healthy and stable adults to fall over, and in the road it can cause skids and thus accidents that can cause harm to anyone anywhere near traffic.

One response to cold weather for people with no access to a stable, warm space is to seek intoxication, which not only increases the risks of injury and illness that come from spending too much time outside, but also increases the vulnerability of people to more human, less literal, coldness.

The novel I just read is set in an even colder place than the Toronto in which I live, the Montreal in which I have (once) played. It is about coldness, both human and literal, it is about love, it is about addiction and repression and desperation and maturity and responsibility and it made me weep and weep and weep as I walked through the beginnings of the snowfalls that have, in the matter of a few days, turned the city into the beginnings of a cold-weather dystopia.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel was a Christmas gift from one of my lover’s siblings, and when I began it I was worried I was going to hate it. The opening couple of chapters reminded me of Geek Love (a novel I did not enjoy) through its descriptions of people dealt a very shit hand who aspire to circus performance. However, rather than taking this realist backdrop and doing silly, unbelievable things with it, what Heather O’Neill does in this 2017 novel is build a moving, dark and engaging portrait of Montreal in the 1920s and two young people who are fucked over, repeatedly, and respond to this in very different ways.

There are two main protagonists, Rose and Pierrot, both are orphaned children, abandoned by their young mothers. They grow up in the same orphanage where both are extensively abused by the nuns. Pierrot is the victim of continued sexual abuse from the age of eleven, while Rose experiences increased violence as she ages. While Rose is recovering from an extreme beating, Pierrot is adopted by an affluent man, who dies without changing his will, leaving Pierrot penniless, homeless and used to luxury. He sinks into heroin addiction, paid for by burgling the houses he visited as the rich man’s ward. When Rose leaves the orphanage it is to be a governess for a local “reputable businessman” who quickly fires her as carer for his children and installs her in a city-centre shagpad as his mistress.

Sorry, I’m doing that thing where I just recount the plot of a novel as if I’m talking to myself. I mean, I kinda am, right? Very few people are reading this except me. I’m doing this for myself. But not for myself, now, like the exercising, like the not drinking. I’m typing here because I want to maintain healthy, constructive, habits, I want to do things that my potential future non-depressed self will be pleased that I maintained despite the urge to find a fucking guillotine and make it work its magic on my pointless fucking jugular.

I need to buy new glasses so I can budget for a trip to Mexico. I’m scared to buy glasses because they might be very expensive, but the worst thing that means is that I have to postpone going to Mexico until the Autumn, rather than the Spring. I can handle that. That is fiiiiine.

Anyway, The Lonely Hearts Hotel veers away from hopelessness when the leads are reunited and begin to realise their childhood dreams of running a circus. Their route to this is neatly plotted, as too are the inevitable cracks that appear due to the shared and disparate pasts of Rose and Pierrot. It’s a beautiful novel about hope and hopelessness, about how we – and our priorities – change as we age and how this inevitability is tragic but beautiful.

I wept a lot throughout the final section of this novel, and I felt a lot of pain on behalf of O’Neill’s characters. She evokes tragedy and poverty beautifully, but also too the excitement of love and sex, the fun and pleasure of travel and performance, of friendship and music and rule-breaking. It’s a great novel.

I don’t have anything to say about anything any more. I haven’t had any writing accepted anywhere for months. I haven’t written anything (this blog doesn’t count) for almost as long.

I’m in a rut. I need new glasses and a bit of time in a place I’ve never been before. Maybe I should go back to Montreal for a couple of days. I liked it there. But it’s colder. So much colder. I do not like to be cold.

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