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Sunday, November 24, 2019

Lullabies for Little Criminals - Heather O'Neill




One of the perils of knowing little about contemporary Canadian literature is that I have heard of too few Canadian authors and haven’t heard of too many remarkable ones. The ones that I have read are the masters or those that I have come to personally in the last decade or heard about through friends. 

That leaves a huge gap that I furtively try to fill every time I go to my local library at Weston.

A couple of months back, I picked up Heather O’Neill’s debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006). It is a disturbing novel about a 12-year-old girl – Baby – who is smart, sassy, confident, and a victim of utter neglect. A motherless child whose father – Jules – is young enough to be her older brother, and perhaps therefore unable to do anything right in his life, leave alone raise a daughter. 

The novel depicts one year in Baby’s life (12 turning on 13) – a time when she is still a child but is forced to become an adult. During that period, Jules and Baby move around different apartments across Montreal’s seedy localities, populated by drug addicts, drug pushers, mentally unstable women, pimps, and prostitutes.

Lullabies for Little Criminals has no villains. Jules is someone who the reader would automatically sympathise with; he needs help and is unable to look after himself. He has long ago lost the ability to distinguish between real and imagined and prefers to be on the run rather than look after his daughter. Similarly, Alphonse, the pimp, who pushes Baby into prostitution, is abusive no doubt, but he is often reduced to a pathetic state, with no control either over himself and his circumstances.

It would seem that Baby gradually loses the ability to decide what is right and wrong, but in reality, she doesn’t really have a choice. Her circumstances force her to abandon the life that she desires and knows that she deserves – that of a normal child, who is good at her studies, scoring high in her class, and one who would prefer to spend time with children her age indulging in innocent fun. 

Instead, she experiences a harrowing spiral of descent into doom from which it is impossible to return.

All through that desperate journey, Baby doesn’t ever stop being hopeful that she will eventually find a mother, or someone who will be like a mother. She looks in vain for this mother-like figure in the women she encounters, whether it is the mother of the kids with whom she spends a few days, or the Russian landlady or even the prostitute and the drug addicts with whom she traverses the grimy nether world.

The tenth anniversary edition of the novel also has a short interview with O’Neill. The interview contextualises the debut novel. O'Neill is, as I later discovered, a renowned journalist, who produced the documentary Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi.

The novel won many accolades and was nominated for many more. It is so lovingly crafted that nearly all paragraphs end in epigrammatic sentences. 

The phantasmagorical descriptions of Baby’s mind when she is high on heroin flagrantly vibrant, flamboyant. It reminded me of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, which is based on Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name and depicts the life of down and out Edinburgh dudes hooked on heroin.

Reproduced below are some lines from the novel that I found exceptionally noteworthy:
  • Being judged by society makes you disregard it after a while.
  • Usually I went around with so many ugly insecure things flying around in my head that when a pretty thought came to me, it usually died a lonely death, afraid to come out.
  • Sometimes I wish I was the only man left on the whole planet. And then every day all these different women would come up to me and I’d have to give them a little love. Just a little peck on the cheek or a flower or something. Enough to get them through the day. That’s the way I was born and that’s the way I’ll die.
  • The real first kiss is the one that tells you what it feels like to be an adult and doesn’t let you be a child anymore. The first kiss is the one that you suffer the consequences of. It was as if I had been playing Russian roulette and finally got the cylinder with the bullet in it.
  • When you’re young enough, you don’t know that you live in a cheap lousy apartment. A cracked chair is nothing other than a chair. A dandelion growing out of a crack in the sidewalk outside your front door is a garden. You could believe that a song your parent was singing in the evening was the most tragic opera in the world. It never occurs to you when you are very young to need something other than what your parents have to offer to you.
  • From the way that people have always talked about your heart being broken, it sort of seemed to be one-time thing. Mine seemed to break all the time.
  • I cut through the parking lot, which was filled with men smoking cigarette butts. The ones who were worse off had tangled hair and looked like Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. From the distant looks on their faces, they seemed experiencing a level of profundity that could kill an ordinary citizen.


Photo credit: https://www.goodreads.com/photo/author/12676.Heather_O_Neill



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