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Lullabies for little criminals, by Heather O'Neill

A vivid and poignant child's-eye view of the dark side of urban Canada

It's intriguing to ponder why Heather O'Neill, the author of this prize-winning debut novel, did not write a misery memoir. In an essay, she suggests that much of the material for her narrator, Baby (who is being raised by Jules, her heroin-addicted father, in Montreal's red-light district), came from her own experiences. O'Neill writes that, despite drawing on painful memories, her novel "exists in the childish realm of make-believe".

It was a wise choice, since much of what Baby endures might have made for unbearably voyeuristic reading. Her mother, pregnant at 16 in a small Quebec town, dies in a car crash before Jules heads for the city with his daughter. They move from hotel to hotel as he tries out get-rich-quick schemes and petty crime, and falls deeper into addiction.

What O'Neill has captured vividly and poignantly is Baby's desperate attempt to retain her love and respect for her father. "I liked him right next to me, stoned and not going anywhere," she writes. "I felt protected and perfect." But as Baby grows up, her father becomes increasingly destitute. At one point, Jules is forced into rehab and Baby goes into a foster home, where she experiences a fleeting form of love and security.

All too soon, Jules arrives and takes Baby back. Eventually, he spirals back into addiction and leaves town, and Baby moves in with Xavier, a pimp. Soon she's experimenting with heroin and is forced into working for her lover's clients. She still attends school and does her homework at night, in between tricks.

When Jules reappears, he tries to cut off anyone who tries to help her. Xavier is equally possessive and assaults her when he finds her dating a boy. O'Neill also does a masterful job of retaining Baby's perspective as a child, sizing up these monstrous adults and still managing to find wonder amid the rubble of her life.

There is eventually a suggestion of redemption for Baby. O'Neill's novel builds to a riveting climax, where her narrator's life and sanity seem to hang in the balance. Only when Jules finally releases his grip on his daughter can she move to a real place of safety. This is a deeply moving and troubling novel exploring the dark side of urban Canada, where, all too easily, children are still left to struggle against impossible odds.

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