Lullabies for little criminals, by Heather O'Neill
A vivid and poignant child's-eye view of the dark side of urban Canada
Tuesday 19 February 2008
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.
Quercus, £10.99. Order for £9.99 (free p&p) on 08700 798 897
TVJamie's Sugar Rush reveal's campaigning chef's new foe
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What marriage would look like if we actually followed the Bible
- 2 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 3 'Heartbreaking' Syria orphan photo wasn't taken in Syria and not of orphan
- 4 Bob Geldof offers to take four refugee families into his home 'immediately' as he condemns humanitarian crisis as a ‘f**king disgrace'
- 5 Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
The Gamechangers trailer: Daniel Radcliffe stars in GTA movie
Three million books were judged by their covers - this is what happened
Anne Hathaway is already being stung by Hollywood ageism, aged 32
No Escape, film review: Thriller generates plenty of excitement but soon collapses
The Lobster trailer: Colin Farrell has 45 days to find a lover or he'll be turned into an animal
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 250,000 back our campaign
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees