A gritty, heart-wrenching novel about bruised innocence on the city's feral streets—the remarkable debut of a stunning literary talent
Heather O'Neill dazzles with a first novel of extraordinary prescience and power, a subtly understated yet searingly effective story of a young life on the streets—and the strength, wits, and luck necessary for survival.
At thirteen, Baby vacillates between childhood comforts and adult temptation: still young enough to drag her dolls around in a vinyl suitcase yet old enough to know more than she should about urban cruelties. Motherless, she lives with her father, Jules, who takes better care of his heroin habit than he does of his daughter. Baby's gift is a genius for spinning stories and for cherishing the small crumbs of happiness that fall into her lap. But her blossoming beauty has captured the attention of a charismatic and dangerous local pimp who runs an army of sad, slavishly devoted girls—a volatile situation even the normally oblivious Jules cannot ignore. And when an escape disguised as betrayal threatens to crush Baby's spirit, she will ultimately realize that the power of salvation rests in her hands alone.
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A down-and-dirty debut novel, a harrowing recital of a young life, a funny, innocent, streetwise telling of life on the street--all of the above describe Heather O'Neill's Lullabies for Little Criminals. In an autobiographical essay included in the book, O'Neill, whose own childhood parallels rather closely the life of Baby, her book's heroine, says, "In Lullabies, I wanted to capture what I remembered of the drunken babbling of unfortunate twelve-year-olds: their illusions; their ludicrously bad choices, their lack of morality and utter disbelief in cause and effect." She accomplishes all of the above and more.
Baby is born to two 15-year-olds, and her mother dies a year later. Her father, Jules, is not a bad man, but he is a perpetual kid, without money, education, purpose, moral compass, or any idea of what being a parent is about or how ordinary people live. When the novel begins, Baby is almost 12, and her 12th year turns out to be a very big one indeed. She smokes pot, shoots heroin, loses her virginity, and lives in foster homes, a state detention home, and one seedy, squalid apartment after another. She comes under the spell of Alphonse, a neighborhood pimp, and is so hungry for male affection that she mistakes what he offers for love and care.
Baby and her equally neglected and abused friends long for adulthood, whatever that means. They look up to sophisticated druggies and efficient thieves. Baby says, "I don't know why I was upset about not being an adult. It was right around the corner. Becoming a child again is what is impossible. That's what you have a legitimate reason to be upset over." Baby is matter-of-fact about her predicament. She knows that other kids have lives very different from hers but says, "It never occurs to you when you are very young to need something other than what your parents have to offer to you." This poignant story is beautifully written, sprinkled throughout with humor, pathos, unbelievable privation, and, in the end, the hope of redemption. At least we know that Heather O'Neill grew up to be a writer of no mean accomplishment. --Valerie RyanAbout the Author:
HEATHER O’ NEILL’s first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, earned accolades around the world, including being named winner of Canada Reads 2007 and the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and being a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Orange Prize. She is a regular contributor to CBC Books, CBC Radio, National Public Radio, The New York Times Magazine, The Gazette (Montreal) and The Walrus. She was born in Montreal, where she currently lives.
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