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March 17, 2007

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill

Winner of the recent Canada Reads competition, Heather O’Neill’s first novel Lullabies for Little Criminals struck me as a modern Huckleberry Finn. A child, older than its years and younger than it thinks it is, set out into a brutal world where no adult is really trustworthy or even the least bit good. And like Huck Finn, O’Neill’s narrator Baby possesses the most incredibly convincing, earnest and almost hypnotic voice. I would listen to her stories all day. What she notices and how she describes it is a perfect child’s eye view, and yet what she doesn’t say and the spaces in between her words illuminate the reality of her situation and her vulnerability. O’Neill throws out all the right details to give us Baby’s perspective, and to imagine the world she sees.

Her mother’s dead, her father’s a heroin addict; she’s been brought up amongst junkies and hobos, and Baby is not easily fazed. I found the beginning of this book remarkably funny, actually. Bleaker than pink, but I enjoyed getting accustomed to Baby’s voice and her early experiences are a good mix of light and dark. But of course bad gets to worse, and the reader comes to understand that Baby has bad luck and danger on all sides of her. Spanning two years, time in the book goes slow. All this action, and then she tells us it’s just a few months later– which Baby does remark at one point is like a child’s perspective of time. I did find the plot dragging toward the middle of the novel: the beginning reads like a series of vignettes, and soon I wanted something with more drive. However the plot was propelled with the complications Baby faces once she gets mixed up with a pimp called Alphonse and concurrently falls in love with a strange boy from school called Xavier. There were suggestions of a happy ending, though; Baby deserved one. And I don’t think it ruins the book to let you know that.

And so the subject matter is bleak– drug addiction, poverty, prostitution and child neglect tend to be. But then Baby’s voice is so fresh and her perspective so unique that the read is not as hard-going as a plot summary might imply. Oh then by turns this book is heartbreaking, but it has to be. O’Neill’s fiction stands for true stories that aren’t often told let alone so thoroughly examined. I was taken into a whole other world.

One thought on “Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill”

  1. Crissy Calhoun says:

    me too. completely taken into another world. and some sentences and paragraphs (i should have marked them somehow, or copied them down) were just so remarkable — there was one comparing something to putting a juicy piece of orange in your mouth.

    the book reminded me of this story my mum told me not long ago. when she was a little girl (5 or 6 years old) she made a friend at school. then she brought the girl over to play. after the girl left, my grandma told my mum she couldn’t play with her anymore because that little girl’s mum was a prostitute. my mum didn’t get to play with her anymore. i think that little girl might have ended up a bit like Baby.

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