Review: Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill

I was not at all surprised to find that Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill was the 2007 winner of Canada Reads. Though the cover is extremely eye-catching, it’s not the type of book I would normally pick up. I read the back and again, thought that it sounded interesting, but if it hadn’t been for this Canada Reads Challenge, I might not have bought it. I didn’t have to, in the end, as I got it from my boyfriend for my birthday (he’s very sweet).

Just in case you, dear reader, aren’t in a mood to read this whole post, I should say right now that Heather O’Neill is a truly master with words.

Her writing is unlike anything I have come across in the past. Her metaphors are strange and completely unique, allowing the reader to follow her every step of the way. The events that take place in this book are so horrible, unfair and uncomfortable that we as readers should be questioning how such things can happen. On the contrary, somehow O’Neill plants us so firmly in the mind of 12 year old, Baby, that we seem to understand why she makes the choices she does. It is truly an astounding feat. Not to mention that I had to crack open the book about 10 times while having dinner at my parents’ last week to read my mum some stunning phrases.

I digress. How about a synopsis? Baby lives alone with her unstable, young, drug addict father, Jules, in the red light district of Montreal. The red light is magical to Baby, however, and she thrives as a wild child in the seedy ‘hood having never known anything else. The story follows a year in Baby’s life where, at 12 years old, she is abruptly thrust into puberty and before the year is over, adulthood. A touching, eye-opening story, it makes any reader question what they take for granted and what they really know about street kids.

If you’re from Toronto, you’ll know that ad on the TTC that says “Why can’t street kids just get a life?” and then there’s a huge paragraph of probably size 10 type all followed by a big “That’s why.” This book was like that ad for me. Baby most likely lives in squalor, but you wouldn’t know as the reader because she doesn’t know as the narrator. That’s really the brilliance of this novel. Things happen to Baby that most of the population would be horrified of, yet for her, it’s all familiar so none of it comes off as anything other than ordinary to the reader. It was the first time that I had read a book that was so far away from my own life (aside from the fact that I’ve lived in Montreal for 7 years) but that I still completely understood and didn’t feel shut-out of. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t had her experiences, and that’s what is so rare in a novel. To be so included in something that is so foreign to you.

At page 144, I read this line of Baby’s narration. She had received a tape from a friend, but wasn’t sure she wanted to listen to in case it wasn’t very good. “I might listen to it, and it might be horrible, like the bad rock and roll that they played at the Jupiter Café on the corner. It would depress me all day if I had to hear that.” This line was my first realization that Baby seems like the granddaughter of Holden Caufield. If you’ve read this book, I’m sure you agree with me. She refers multiple times in the book to seeing certain kids wearing weird items of clothing, or having something embarrassing happen to them while she’s watching and she says it depresses her. That was very Holden Caufield to me and I really appreciated the reference, whether it was intentional or not. I know that this is supposed to be loosely based on O’Neill’s childhood in Montreal so I’d be very curious to know whether Catcher in the Rye had a big impact on her growing up. Baby also has the same sense of abandon, adventure without it being adventure (if that makes any sense), and curiosity as Caufield. I think his character was more self-aware than Baby, but he’s got 5 years on her. I sort of wanted him to appear in the book and I didn’t realize I was thinking that until the end when he had never showed up. It’s funny what you think about in the back of your mind when you’re reading.

I strongly, strongly recommend this book to anyone, really. Especially Canadians. I can totally see why it was chosen to be on this Canada Reads Top 40 list, as well as why it won the prize in 2007. It’s so important for Canadians to understand the people in their country, especially people that we have completely stereotyped most of the time. I have, at least. My view has completely changed after reading this book.

Now for my turn downs. As per usual, there are no spoilers here. Just incredibly well crafted sentences and ideas of the like that I have never encountered before. It looks here as if O’Neill writes with an abundance of metaphors, but it’s really just me that found the best ones and, while literally blinking and shaking my head I was so impressed, turned down the bottom corner of the page in respectful jealousy. Why can’t I write like this?

1) “I had always liked reading, but lately I had started reading in a different kind of way. When I opened a book now, I was seized with desperation. I felt as if I was madly in love. It was as if I were in a confession booth and the characters in the book were on the other side telling me their most intimate secrets. When I read, I was a philosopher and it was up to me to figure out the meaning of things. Reading made me feel as if I were the centre of the universe.”

– If you read, you just totally get this. That’s all that needs to be said.

2) “It was late January and winter now. The sky was the colour of light-bulbs that weren’t lit.”

– I never thought it would be possible to describe a colour so well but I’m sure that universally, everyone knows exactly what the sky looks like in this scene. So creative.

3) I was so confused by things that nothing quite seemed real at that moment. It wouldn’t have surprised me if the spoons in the utensil drawer started crying and needed to be rocked to sleep.”

– That line is simply beautiful, heat-breaking and honest. I still can’t get over how it makes my heart ache to read it. It is officially the best line I have ever read in a book.

I’ve only given you three turn downs. I want you to see what O’Neill is capable of, then rush out to the bookstore to buy a copy. I’d say library, but trust me. You’ll want to take your time rereading sections and then after, having this beautiful book on your shelf for years to come to share with friends and read again and again.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Michele says:

    Hi there,

    I discovered your blog recently from a CBC books status update on FB. I think it's great that you're doing this challenge for yourself.

    I recently started one to read all the Giller Prize winners to the present day. I'm down to the last three on the list. And like you, I like to be frugal with my books so I've added an additional challenge of borrowing all the books, either from friends or the library. It's been a great motivator to read more CanLit. Though very tough going sometimes.

    I wish you luck in your quest and look forward to reading your reviews.

    Oh, and last week I read on of the books on your shelf – Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Peel Society. Loved it. Thanks for the rec!

  2. AC says:

    Allegra – cool blog. I loved this book too in a huge way.

  3. Michele – glad you liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society! Sorry I didn't write back right away. Somehow I must have missed your comment.

    Glad you're reading all the Giller Books! I really want to do the same thing, but I'm sort of already in the middle of my current challenge to which, I agree, is tough going sometimes! Let me know what your top 5 Giller picks are – I'd love to check them out.

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