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Lullabies for Little Criminals Paperback – October 17, 2006
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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 Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
In her debut novel, This American Life contributor O'Neill offers a narrator, Baby, coming of age in Montreal just before her 12th birthday. Her mother is long dead. Her father, Jules, is a junkie who shuttles her from crumbling hotels to rotting apartments, his short-term work or moneymaking schemes always undermined by his rage and paranoia. Baby tries to screen out the bad parts by hanging out at the community center and in other kids' apartments, by focusing on school when she can and by taking mushrooms and the like. (She finds sex mostly painful.) Stints in foster care, family services and juvenile detention ("nostalgia could kill you there") usually end in Jules's return and his increasingly erratic behavior. Baby's intelligence and self-awareness can't protect her from parental and kid-on-kid violence, or from the seductive power of being desired by Alphonse, a charismatic predator, on the one hand, and by Xavier, an idealistic classmate, on the other. When her lives collide, Baby faces choices she is not equipped to make. O'Neill's vivid prose owes a debt to Donna Tartt's The Little Friend; the plot has a staccato feel that's appropriate but that doesn't coalesce. Baby's precocious introspection, however, feels pitch perfect, and the book's final pages are tear-jerkingly effective. (Oct.)
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Top Customer Reviews
Two, the book is full of beautifully poetic comparisons and turns of phrase, but it doesn't work when *everything* is described this way, and when all the characters sound the same. A pimp says a prostitute's sweater looks like 'watching TV with bad reception.' Jules' friend says he never drinks milk 'because cows don't exist.' Alphonse says his mother 'thinks he has turned into a cat.' Baby's school friend says she never writes in cursive because 'it looks like pubic hair.' On and on. These are sometimes intriguing and vivid ideas, but characters should be more than just vessels to fill with the author's voice.
Three (this is actually an extension of two), when everything is described fleetingly and with strange juxtapositions, the reader is blocked off from getting to know the character of Baby or the reality of her experiences. She says a friend gives her a tattoo of the moon on her knee, in a throwaway sentence, then never mentions it again. When she injects heroin she says 'A white pigeon sat next to me and began flawlessly conjugating French verbs.' It's not a realistic description of the drug's effects, even discounting the overused style of surreal metaphor.
Finally, the ending was very abrupt and didn't come to any kind of meaningful conclusion.
I came away from this book not knowing Baby, not feeling like she was a real character, and not feeling fully immersed in any of the scenes.
Baby is a 12 year old girl who's father, Jules, is a heroin addict. Her life is complete chaos and through out the book, she's thrown from run-down apartments to foster homes to detention centers. Surprisingly enough, Jules is actually an endearing character, who I found myself wanting the best for, as much as I did for his daughter.
Here's my favorite passage; I think it really sums up the feel of the entire book:
"Jules and I were tiny people. We were delicate. We were almost destroyed. We were vulnerable. Like nerds in a school yard of bullies, we could have traded our stamps and cards of extinct animals. That's the kind of people we would be if our situation were different."
As vastly different as Baby's childhood is from my own, I could still identify with so many of the themes in the book - losing your innocence (& clinging to it for dear life), the way adults felt so separate; in a world of their own that you were trying to make sense of somehow, and of course, the need for affection, to be told "everything will be okay".
O'Neill is an amazing writer. I don't know how anyone could feel differently. Sure, she uses a lot of similes and metaphors, but they were perfect. She didn't just paint pictures, she painted paintings - I could read the words and instantly feel something; it was like she breathed life into everything she'd written. It was clear that she's experienced some similar situations, because she wrote about all of the awful things that happened to Baby with such a raw honesty, so specific and real.
The characters were so diverse, with so many dimensions - each one entirely unique. By the end of the book I felt like I had memories of them all, because each one affected me that much.
I really enjoyed Xander's character and what he represented for Baby - an escape back into innocence and comfort. I felt heartbroken when their little relationship wasn't enough to save her, though I knew it wouldn't be... and the reason I knew is because I could expect that much from O'Neill - a realistic, yet incredibly moving account of a childhood tainted by drug use and poverty.
Though painful to read, I'm giving this book 5 stars, because it did exactly what it set out to do - it made me part of a world that while dark and scary, was also beautifully triumphant. Plus, the writing style is so emotional and unique - come to think of it, it read like a lullaby. Loved it.
With that said, it was a very worthwhile book. The writing style got a bit tedious at times - way too many similes and metaphors - there's no way that this 12-year-old girl could put into words the "pictures" she saw in everyday life.
Like many other reviewers, I question the cover. It does not fit the sadness of the story - or the characters.
I'm glad I read this book; it just had some issues.
The imagery is non-stop and hugely imaginative. One feels the autobiographical nature not so much from the facts and setting - although they are certainly suggested by O'Neill's own life -- as by Baby's internal voice, which is the author's. While fully functional, she seems to inhabit a psyche that might veer into derangement at any moment.
How else could someone wonder if an unfamiliar word meant "a hole that changes places"?
This is not for everyone, and not for anyone under 16. Child drug abuse, physical abuse, and prostitution are presented without judgment, as parts of the natural world Baby inhabits. (The sex scenes are not graphic past "second base".). Even murder and suicide are matter of fact. A child might be terrified by a crocodile marionette but comforted by an abusive pimp.