Tough Love

Lullabies for Little Criminals

By Anne Chudobiak

A review of Lullabies For Little Criminals by Heather O'neill

Published on May 1, 2007

Lullabies For Little Criminals
Heather O'neill

Harper Perennial
$17.50
paper
330pp
978-0-06-087507-7

In Lullabies for Little Criminals, debut novelist Heather O’Neill tells the story of Baby, a motherless child living in Montreal’s red-light district with her junkie father, Jules. If that sounds bleak, it’s not. How could it be with the winsome Baby as narrator?

The book opens with Baby looking back (presumably from adulthood) to the time just before her twelfth birthday, an age when she is still primed for magic in spite of her dire upbringing. When the drug-addled Jules passes out on her bed, a lit cigarette in hand, she feels “protected and perfect” because his body is warm beside her. She is so enthusiastic about her father – citing his smile, his tall tales, his own unhappy childhood – that it’s impossible for us to condemn him, even when he ditches her on her birthday to score heroin. He may be the most sympathetic abusive father in literature: he dresses Baby in passé ’70s clothes, humiliates her in front of the one friend she brings home from school, and destroys the only memento she has of her dead mother, but still she knows he loves her.

O’Neill has a talent for this kind of reversal. She is a tragicomedienne par excellence. Her skills come in handy as Baby’s already difficult life gets even worse, beginning with a series of unplanned separations from Jules, the first of which lands Baby in a foster home. There she meets cool-kid Linus, who hands out backstage passes to his room: “He made everything exciting, like this was the place to be, which is a strange feeling to have inside a foster home.” The same could be said for O’Neill. She makes everything appealing, no matter how decrepit or disturbing. She shows us the “tiny black stars” on the paper peeling off the rooming-house walls. She transforms a “bum” into an eligible bachelor. Her vision of court-recommended rehab is so idyllic (“a really mountainous area with tons of trees and country cabins”) that we understand why Baby might resolve to become a drug addict after seeing Jules so happily ensconced. She’d give anything to do origami with her father.

Each time Baby reunites with Jules, she is more conflicted about their relationship, and so are we. The older she gets, the harder it is for her to ignore those rips in the wallpaper. Her father is benignly neglectful when he’s using and downright nasty when he’s not. It’s enough to turn any kid to the streets. Or is it?

As Lullabies progresses it reads like a fight for Baby’s soul. Each day she falls further from grace. Adults look on her with growing suspicion; the unfortunate exception is Alphonse, a neighbourhood pimp who is “terribly interested in women,” and who becomes Baby’s biggest challenge. His interest in her fuels the book’s dramatic end, the pace of which comes as a surprise after the more static vignette style of the early chapters.

One of the book’s biggest strengths is Baby’s power of description. Alphonse’s spiky orange dreadlocks look like “a cartoon cat that has just exploded,” a piñata like “something you’d transport drugs across the border in.” But sometimes Baby’s figurative language runs away with her: “We would kiss like cockroaches headed for the cracks.” Although this is a problem, it isn’t a big one. A mind as sharp and tortured as Baby’s would naturally be full of discordant images.

You will not want to miss this tender depiction of some very mean streets. mRb

Anne Chudobiak is a Montreal writer, translator and editor.

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