First of all, what a feat for a debut novel! I can’t wait to read more by Heather O’Neill, which is easy to do since Lullabies for little criminals: a novel was published in 2006, and her second novel in 2014. That said, if the title sounds ominous, it is and for good reason too. This is not a cheery coming-of-age story but rather one about living poor, doing drugs, and turning tricks, all while trying to grow up despite wanting to just be a kid. The back cover summary explains it well: “A gritty, heart-wrencing novel about bruised innocence on the city’s feral streets–the remarkable debut of a stunning literary talent.”
The story is all about Baby, a 12-year-old in Montreal who lives with her heroin-addicted unemployed father Jules, moving from place to place, and realizing how crummy her life is compared to her classmates. She turns 13 and has reached the age in which her adorableness has worn off and her father views her as a pre-teen on the cusp of womanhood and at risk to the danger of the streets. He’s not wrong but it seems like she plays into these fears of his because, well how can she not when her friends are in situations like hers and the popular girls at school are mean? Intelligence and curiosity are on her side: she does well in school and loves to read but her circumstances at home don’t foster or encourage striving for anything. Her druggie father is either high or attempting yet again to kick the habit or severely sick (landing her in a foster home) or trying to sell quilts door-to-door to make ends meet. He also doesn’t trust her and gets upset at the smallest of things, only fueling her anger and desire to be instantly grown up and be on her own.
After its publication in 2006, Lullabies for little criminals earned many awards and was selected as a Canada Reads! book. Despite it’s difficult content, O’Neill writes gorgeous sentences that resonate with reader and some that demand a pause to savor them in the moment.
As I walked home, the line of gray buildings seemed to be shoved together like the letters cut out of a newspaper and stuck together on a ransom note. The sky was the color of an X-ray of Jules’s lungs that used to be tacked to our wall.
Baby has an absence of women in her life, either she doesn’t like them or the couple that are motherly are briefly a part of it, but there’s an abundance of abusive men who she continues to hang around, not knowing any different. Her father, her male friends, her boyfriends, and her johns all mistreat her yet she returns to all of them time and again. The one nice boy who is her age gets beat up in front of her by her other boyfriend–proof to her of how nice doesn’t pay off. Life for Baby goes from bad to worse and keeps plummeting, and when it couldn’t possibly be more horrible, it does. That’s the biggest challenge of this novel, the stark depressing reality that continues to compound, even to the point of ridiculousness as it hurdles towards the end. Granted, many of her choices are her own, like taking drugs, breaking and entering, stealing, and on and on…but her circumstances set her up to make these bad decisions more easily as her father isn’t the dad that she needs.
In a way, thinking in very broad strokes here, the story is like a fairytale in that Baby’s dealt an awful life that she perpetuates, not knowing anything else, until her father finally steps up after she’s run off without a word for a couple of months and forces a positive change for both of their lives by leaving the city and returning to the country to live with his caring cousin. At first, with the abrupt ending, I was disappointed that O’Neill just cut it off but the more I think about it, a fairytale reading of the novel makes sense because then the ending acts as “And they lived happily ever after”, which too is abrupt. While we don’t know what happens after that, it’s assumed that it’s nothing like anything prior, which in itself is a satisfying resolution.
Recommended for: Readers who like urban fiction, enjoy unique coming-of-age stories, or want a harrowing yet beautifully written tale. If I had to compare it to another book, it’s like Nabokov’s Lolita since that too can be difficult to read about an older man in a relationship with a pre-teen yet it is told in enchanting, lyrical prose; however, Baby is a criminal and the antics of this beyond rebellious girl might not be enjoyed by some as O’Neill doesn’t hold back.