Thursday, April 12, 2007

Lullabies Indeed

Heather O'Neill's Lullabies for Little Criminals has garnered a great deal of attention, particularly after it was selected as the 2007 winner of CBC's Canada Reads.

The enormous hype aside, there is always a frisson of shock in reading something that feels immediate, real, new. That's what Montreal writer O'Neill brings to the book. The misadventures of 12 year old Baby, the pre-teen protagonist being fitfully raised by her heroin junkie father in Montreal hits a nerve even in the reading of the most absurd and strange details of Baby's life whether it is her time spent in foster homes, in the company of petty criminals on the street or with other children, like Theo, who seem permanently damaged by the lives they have lived.

Supposedly inspired by a similarly sporadic life spent with her father when O'Neill's mother could no longer manage the care of her three children, she seems to capture life on the street, a life completely unfettered by rules or commonsense on the part of the adults in Baby's life.

You read with a growing sense of unease as adults (mainly men and boys) notice that Baby is maturing. The casual violence of their language and gestures towards her is unsettling and utterly believable. The pimp Alphonse's slow, predatory conquest of Baby; Jules refusal to dress his growing daughter appropriately, and, the general creepy interest in the girl by all concerned is very unsettling.

It reminded me of how vulnerable girls are as the develop into women when even going outside seemed to be fraught with potential peril (or maybe that is more a product of my upbringing in my Hamilton neighborhood?). It reminds me of the near misses and catastrophes of my own very young sojourns into downtown Hamilton. My mother had a job downtown; I usually accompanied her on Saturdays but often ventured out on my own (at nine! I can't even imagine it now) and was left to my own devices. I met some unsavoury characters and just barely managed to avoid any real trouble. I had little street sense but a deep suspicion of people in general which I think now was a saving grace.

Although, I am only half way through the book now, Baby's gentle acceptance of the bizarre and violent, her seeming naivete is extremely disturbing. It is off putting, even maddening to read. You yearn for an appropriately angry response from her. But reading the "About the Author" section in the back of the book, learning about her real life experiences, hearing her voice as she reads passages from the book on the CBC website, even merely admiring her photo (she looks like a Julia Margaret Cameron portrait or the young Vanessa Bell, sister of Virgina Woolf) provided with her book - it all seems to fit. It feels genuine, created from very early unfathomable sorrows and now reproduced with humour and dispassion.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the lovely review -I was wonering about this book and now I think I shall read it. I am a Barbara Gowdy fan and also enjoyed a complicated kindness by Miriam Toews -this sounds like similar reading.

A Lit Chick said...

Yes Toews is definitely on my "to read" list. Thanks for the recommendation!