Short & Sweet, but Definitely Not Meek

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On Sept. 8, 2015, the longlist nominees for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for fiction were announced. One of the 12 nominated Canadian authors is Montreal native, Heather O’Neill. The nomination came as a bit of a surprise since O’Neill was shortlisted for the prize in 2014 for her second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. The 2015 nomination is for her recent publication of a collection of short stories titled Daydreams of Angels. This marks the first time in the prize’s history that an author has been nominated for two consecutive years.

The stories in Daydreams of Angels play on common tales that children are exposed to during childhood. O’Neill challenges the original ideas by bringing to life characters of all sorts of backgrounds and social classes.

O’Neill breaks down the conventional framework of masculinity and femininity. The little girls in Daydreams of Angels deviate from the societal expectations of the unspoken, non-sexual, disempowered woman. These are the little girls of the 21st century, reinventing themselves.

The title, Daydreams of Angels, brings to light the angelic attributes of the characters within these short stories. Most are told from a child’s point of view, but with maturity that is usually reserved for adults. Yet this sense of aged understanding is somehow still paired with innocence that seems, in and of itself, like a long lost fairytale. The characters within these stories demonstrate the sort of grace that lives with children, not yet set to fulfill the fancies and whims of the distorted construct of social norms.

O’Neill paints pictures with her words, frequently using unusual similes and metaphors that challenge the reader to view even the smallest details in an entirely new way. This is probably O’Neill’s strongest talent. In most situations, an abundant use of similes and metaphors would bog down the text and make for a slow read. However, O’Neill masters the skill with ease, leaving the reader yearning for the next comparison.

One story that particularly deserves special mention is called Where Babies Come From. The myth of the stork is cast aside as the ridiculous tale it is, “Shall I tell you where babies used to come from? Well, they weren’t delivered by storks. That’s the silliest idea anyone ever had” (p. 82). O’Neill uses the lie told to children about their own creation and brings it into the 50s era. She highlights the strangeness of the time when the expectations of motherhood were shifting with the very idea of it being a different thing for each person. There are the women eager to dig up a baby whose bottom peaks above the sand early in the morning after being washed ashore, while others dilly-dally along the beach and are left to find the babies in the evening before they are pulled back out to the sea forever.

Through the fantastical, O’Neill continually exposes and breaks down expectations, commenting on a generation that dares to think beyond mere regurgitation of information and instead thinks for itself regarding manners of freedom and faith. It really isn’t much of a surprise at all that O’Neill should find herself as one of the Giller Prize nominees once again.

The subject of her nomination will surely be a hot topic for discussion when O’Neill arrives at Bishop’s University on Sept. 17, 2015. O’Neill will be hosting a reading and discussion of her works in conjunction with the English department’s Morris House Reading Series (MHRS). For the past twelve years, MHRS has brought Canadian authors to Bishop’s to share their work, answer questions, and speak personally with students, faculty, and community members. The reading will take place in the Centennial lobby at 4:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

To stay updated on upcoming guests follow MHRS on social media via Facebook (Morris House Reading Series) and Twitter (@BU_MHRS).

 

This article was written by Kristy Bockus and originally appeared in the issue of The Campus published on September 16th, 2015.

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