Short Stories for the Holidays: Daydreams of Angels Book Review

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It’s almost here, folks – the holidays! Soon enough, you’ll be enjoying a few weeks of blissful freedom. But what are you going to do with all of that free time?

You could, and in fact should, read Heather O’Neill’s Daydreams of Angels. It is the final Lorenzo Reading Series book until next semester, and it’s not your average collection of short stories.

O’Neill’s tales take her readers through a variety of vivid settings, including the world of a chorus dancer of the 1920s as well as war-torn France and England during the 1940s. While some of her stories take place in later decades, many of those featured in O’Neill’s collection take place in the early half of the 1900s.

“I love the first half of the twentieth century,” O’Neill explains after being asked why so many of her stories have such a profound historical context. “My favourite [decade] is hard to say, but I quite like [writing about] the Depression era.”

“The Saddest Chorus Girl in the World,” one of the many fantastic stories in her collection, takes place during this time, and it effectively demonstrates the superficial nature of the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties. The protagonist, Violet, suddenly finds herself surrounded by wealth when her mother marries a rich man, but it does not make her happy.

Similarly, all of the chorus girls in the story are named after flowers. They are pretty to look at, but lack any real substance; Violet learns this quickly when she realizes how few skills she really has, aside from being beautiful. The story gives readers an insight into the nature of the time period, and into how little value wealth truly has.

O’Neill’s collection also features multiple retellings of old stories, one of the best being “Bartók for Children”.

At first glance, it seems like an ordinary story about a Canadian soldier who dies in occupied France during WWII. But when a toymaker brings him back to life by repairing him with cogs, screws, and motor-oil, it becomes clearer and clearer that it is actually a steampunk-esque retelling of Pinocchio.

Of course, it’s not a story for children by any means. This Pinocchio tale may seem innocent enough, but it possesses sexual content and explicit descriptions of torture. That’s right – it’s Pinocchio with sex and torture. If that doesn’t intrigue you, what will?

While speaking about her retellings, O’Neill provided the Baron with interesting insight into how she goes about choosing which stories she would like to put her own spin on, and which stories she wouldn’t.

photo courtesy of Montreal Gazette
photo courtesy of Montreal Gazette

“You have to consider the ethics of borrowing a story. I feel like anything [by Western writers] is fair game,” she explains, “but I wouldn’t retell a story from African culture or of indigenous descent. It has to do with power struggles. You never take something from someone that your people have oppressed.”

Even if historical fiction and/or retellings are not your thing, Daydreams of Angels could still be a great read for your holiday break. Her stories are filled with magical realism and quirky gimmicks that will put your brain in the holiday spirit – especially those found in “A Christmas Carol.”

This story revolves around children listening to their grandfather tell them how magical and fantastic Christmas was “before the war.” It is not long before the children realize that his recounting of that one particular Christmas grows more magical and fantastic with each passing year.

For O’Neill, the story is rooted in the concept of holiday traditions.

“There’s just something about the holidays. They become a layer of past holidays,” she explains. “When I do Christmas things with my daughter, I’ll always talk about my Christmases as a kid. In a way, every Christmas is just an accumulation of past Christmases.”

She even jokes that, “You have to be careful what you do [during the holidays], because if you do something new, that might become part of the ritual, even though it doesn’t make any sense. Like, ‘Okay! Now it’s time for us to eat mashed carrots at 3:00. We’ve been doing it for six years now!’”

O’Neill read excerpts from Daydreams of Angels at UNB Saint John on November 24 and took part in a creative writing and publishing Q&A on November 25, with a small group of students. The event was hosted by VOX, UNB Saint John’s annual creative works publication.

Heather O’Neill is witty, charismatic, and such an interesting person to speak with, and it shines through in her work. Each of her stories are unique from the rest, and they all have something special to say.

They feature vivid characters and settings in addition to being an excellent escape from stress surrounding exams and the holidays. Pick up your copy, curl up somewhere warm, and give this collection of short stories a try. You won’t regret it.