LULLABIES FOR LITTLE CRIMINALS by Heather O'Neill (Harper Collins), 346 pages, $17.50 paper. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
I've waited for this first novel by Montreal poet Heather O'Neill for what seems like most of my adult life.
And Lullabies For Little Criminals doesn't disappoint. It's a clever, thoughtful rumination on girlhood and survival told with refreshing acuity by a remarkably talented writer.
The narrator is Baby, a 12-year-old only child raised by a father more interested in heroin than in child care. Baby spends a pivotal year in and out of foster care and at neighbours' houses when her dad's in rehab, and in hotels and short-term apartments when he's out.
When she's 13, the adults around her stop thinking she's a cute kid and start treating her inevitable sexuality as suspect or something to exploit. Baby struggles with her new place in an adult world she's not ready for but already knows so much about.
O'Neill has a unique ability to write realistically from the vantage point of a 'tween with poetic acumen and a quirky sensibility. Baby is never overly wise or pathetically naive; she's simply a hopeful kid in a criminal-class world trying to find normalcy and love among aimless, flailing adults.
The pimps, pedophiles, bad dads and goofy junkies are full-blooded and complex, never serving as simple plot points so Baby can learn a standard moralistic coming-of-age lesson. She seeks to become her own person despite the system and family who most often let her down, and, like the novel, succeeds quietly.
A lot of writers have style but nothing to say. Others have a compelling story but don't know how to write it. O'Neill has style and story in spades. The passion in Baby's narrative is infectious and layered, and O'Neill's flare for language and humour give her novel that extra bit of genius.