It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as conflicted about a novel as I am about “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” by Heather O’Neill. This is a book which arrestingly portrays the brutal abuse of women and orphans with the fantastical touch of a fairy tale. It creatively shows how children’s imaginations can colour their world as a defence against the horrors of their reality. The narrative is strewn with fascinating concepts and imagery that made me frequently pause to think about their meaning. Yet, as compelling as I found the writing in this book I felt at times deeply uncomfortable with the way issues such as physical/sexual abuse, prostitution and drug abuse sat within the humorous/whimsical style of the novel. I have no doubt the author takes these issues very seriously and I could feel behind the magical flair a lot of anger for the injustice experienced by vulnerable children, women and the poor. However, I continuously questioned throughout my reading whether this is the most appropriate way to portray traumatic experiences. I think the point was to raise questions and it certainly did that for me. At its heart, this novel is as deeply provocative and unsettling as the highly intelligent fiction of Angela Carter.
“The Lonely Hearts Hotel” begins in the early 1900s with the unfortunate stories of two young mothers whose boy and girl wind up in a Montreal orphanage. The majority of the book follows the development of these children Rose and Joseph (who everyone calls Pierrot). Although boys and girls in the orphanage are kept separate by the strict nuns who oversee them, Rose and Pierrot develop a deep bond and form a curious kind of double-act with acrobatics, dancing and improvised piano playing. The jealousy of a manipulative third party creates a split between the pair and they are finally physically separated when Pierrot is adopted by an encouraging elderly wealthy man and Rose is employed as an indulgent governess to the children of a notorious gangster leader. Their stories spiral into bizarre and surprising adventures that take them through the Great Depression, but are always tinged with the sorrow of their lost burgeoning romance.
It’s so intriguing how O’Neill writes about the experience of childhood. It’s particularly striking how she describes the way adolescents develop their use of language and claim it as their own. She observes how “Although the two had only known harsh terms and words of discipline, they had managed to transform them into words of love.” The way in which the children use words with each other redefines that language as something empowering rather than something used as a weapon to diminish them. They also possess the innate powers of creativity, talent and imagination to build themselves out of the desultory circumstances they were born into.
Throughout Rose’s upbringing she imagines a large bear who dances with her. This image is just as innocently charming as it is alarming suggesting that danger continuously orbits around the girl. This is reinforced by the statement that “A young girl’s body is the most dangerous place in the world, as it is the spot where violence is most likely to be enacted.” Just as girls are in danger of being violated, the author also shows the way a young boy’s developing body is vulnerable to the predatory control and manipulation of those who are older and in a position of power. The author shows how a boy’s early experiences of sexual abuse continue to affect him throughout his life leading to difficulties with intimacy and drug abuse. I was particularly struck by how she describes his continuous craving for drugs even after he sobers up like a taxidermist’s reanimated wolf corpse which stalks him. It’s no wonder that Rose surmises at one point that “Childhood is such a perverse injustice, I don’t know how anyone survives it without going crazy.” Interestingly, Eimear McBride also considers the long-lasting trauma after a young man’s sexual abuse in an entirely different style within her novel “The Lesser Bohemians” (which is also longlisted for this year’s Baileys Prize).
Along with the stories of Rose and Pierrot's eccentric behaviour, there are scenes where flowers complain to one another and a timid rat expresses his nervousness about moving to the big city. By invoking fantasy, O’Neill appears to be be saying that a childish sense of wonder and ambiguity are essential elements in maintaining a morally just world. People who dominate and attempt to control others believe they are justified in doing so because they are fixed in their own certain reality. She writes: “Perhaps the most dangerous people in the world are the ones who believe in right and wrong but what they ascribe to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is completely insane. They are bad with a conviction that they are good. It is that idea that is the impetus behind evil.” Even though Rose and Pierrot experience the most brutally harsh realities of life, they retain their faith in the power of a youthful creativity which gradually morphs as they grow into sophisticated artistic expressions in music and performance.
Something I have difficulty with in novels that describe ambitious forms of artistic expression are overzealous reactions to those performances. That’s something which happens frequently in this novel which includes children’s acrobatics, avant-garde performances by clowns, an eccentric clown and dance revue and an intricately composed song. They all enthral anyone who experiences them. Although large crowds can certainly be enraptured by great art, it becomes slightly irksome reading about the success rate for every kind of performance in this novel which elicits over-enthused reactions. This doesn't take into account the grounding factors of artistic failure and the general indifference of the general public - which is sadly more often the result of creative endeavours.