The #1 national bestseller
“Marvelous . . . viciously funny and acutely intelligent” (Maclean’s), When We Lost Our Heads is the spellbinding story of two young women whose friendship is so intense it not only threatens to destroy them, it changes the course of history
Marie Antoine is the charismatic, spoiled daughter of a sugar baron. At age twelve, with her pile of blond curls and unparalleled sense of whimsy, she’s the leader of all the children in the Golden Mile, the affluent strip of nineteenth-century Montreal where powerful families live. Until one day in 1873, when Sadie Arnett, dark-haired, sly and brilliant, moves to the neighbourhood.
Marie and Sadie are immediately inseparable. United by their passion and intensity, they attract and repel each other in ways that set them both on fire. Marie, with her bubbly charm, sees all the pleasure of the world, whereas Sadie’s obsession with darkness is all-consuming. Soon, their childlike games take on the thrill of danger and then become deadly.
Forced to separate, the girls spend their teenage years engaging in acts of alternating innocence and depravity, until a singular event unites them once more, with devastating effects. After Marie inherits her father’s sugar empire and Sadie disappears into the city’s gritty underworld, the working class begins to foment a revolution. Each woman will play an unexpected role in the events that upend their city—the only question is whether they will find each other once more.
From the beloved Giller Prize-shortlisted author who writes “like a sort of demented angel with an uncanny knack for metaphor” (Toronto Star), When We Lost Our Heads is a page-turning novel that explores gender and power, sex and desire, class and status, and the terrifying strength of the human heart when it can’t let someone go.
About the author
Heather O’Neill is a Canadian novelist, poet, short-story writer, screenwriter and essayist. Lullabies For Little Criminals, her debut novel, was published in 2006 to international critical acclaim and won Canada Reads. It was shortlisted for both the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Orange Prize for Fiction. She has since published the novel The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and the short story collection Daydreams Of Angels, both of which were shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in consecutive years. The collection was also shortlisted for the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. Born and raised in Montreal, O’Neill lives there today with her daughter.
“I am struggling to say how much I loved When We Lost Our Heads. It is full of extraordinary characters and extraordinary settings – both magnificent and squalid. It is a beautiful, alarming, outraged, outrageous, dancing, laughing, shrieking, bellowing, howling, gobbling piece of wonder. What a joy!” — Edward Carey, author of The Swallowed Man
“A dazzling, delicious dream. This enchanting book about the fraught lives of women was penned with equal parts arsenic-laced icing and blood. There are marvels and dark delights on every page as O’Neill masterfully unfurls the lifelong love affair of Sadie and Marie, whose tale is illuminated by the triumphs of female desire over the crushing designs of men. The spell this novel casts is irresistible. Heather O’Neill is a wonder.” — Mona Awad, Giller Prize-shortlisted author of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl and All’s Well
"With irreverence and charm, O’Neill takes us into the vivid worlds of Sadie and Marie, unlikely friends who find themselves in the thrall of shared dark passions, threatening to destroy all they have come to know. When We Lost Our Heads is a lovely, uncanny take on the historical novel, told with O’Neill’s trademark wit and empathy for human foibles." — Esi Edugyan, Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of Washington Black
"A marvelous exploration, viciously funny and acutely intelligent, of a revolution that turns as much on gender as it does on class." — Maclean's
“If hatred is the honey in the tea, O'Neill's innate talent for exploring contemporary issues and relationships through page-turning storytelling is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.” — Quill & Quire (starred review)
“Combines [O'Neill's] trademark whimsy, beautiful prose and skillful storytelling with sharp criticism of gender, feminism, class and power.” — Winnipeg Free Press
“It’s the most fun you’ll have with a historical novel all year.” — Reader's Digest Book Club Pick
"Gripping and compelling....A dark comedy that is simply entertaining, and yet incredibly rich in metaphor. Without a doubt O’Neill is a master story crafter." — The Suburban
“This novel has everything…opulence, whimsy, sugar barons, brothels, factories, revolution, and an intense friendship that forces both participants to straddle darkness and light while clinging to one another for dear life.” — Literary Hub
"Twisty, turny and monstrously clever, this is one of those books you start reading on a beach at 10 a.m. and then suddenly look up and it’s sunset, everyone else has gone home." — The Kit
"A twisted, perverse story that’s difficult to put down…you’ll be desperate to know what [the characters] do next.” — Buzzfeed
"Fascinating and highly entertaining. . . . The plot satisfies with twists and turns to the end, but it’s the audaciousness of spirit emboldening most of her female characters that makes this novel shine." — New York Journal of Books
"O’Neill’s writing voice is instantly recognizable. It’s magical and playful and, because of that, is a foil to the darker elements of the story, reinforcing the tension. It also gives her work a fairy-tale-like quality." — Toronto Star
"It’s hard to think of another contemporary writer whose deployment of language provides as much sheer enjoyment per page, and it has become eminently clear that [O'Neill] has taken her place among the highest echelon of Montreal’s literary chroniclers." — Montreal Gazette
“O’Neill’s sharp descriptions and her prose’s archaic slant successfully immerse readers in the period…this distinctive, character-driven story is delightfully perverse.” — Publishers Weekly
“These perversely fascinating characters are filled with guile and bile and many things vile, and even though it’s virtually a certainty that they are star-crossed, it’s impossible to tear one’s gaze away.” — BookPage
“O’Neill uses evocative descriptions and near-constant tension to carry this dark almost-fairy-tale to an unexpected conclusion.” — Booklist
Other titles by Heather O'Neill
Life in the Court of Matane
Second edition. With a foreword by Heather O'Neill
Lonely Hearts Hotel
Writers on Writing in Canada
Wisdom in Nonsense
Invaluable Lessons from My Father
The Lonely Hearts Hotel
Lullabies for Little Criminals
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
Daydreams Of Angels
The Great Unexpected
The Journey Prize Stories 20
The Best of Canada's New Writers