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BookReview: Lullabies for Little Criminals

Lullabies for Little Criminals

Book by Heather O’Neill

The mind of a creative child is a wonderful thing, especially at that moment before adulthood becomes a reality, maybe age 12, where anything seems possible and innocence, imagination and ability all come together. Heather O’Neill has written a remarkable book about such a mind, the motherless daughter of a junkie, a girl who inhabits the mean streets of Montreal’s red light district. In that grim setting, O’Neill has crafted something so true to the life of a child; she has looked at the strange and terrible, the slimeballs and scheming, poverty and loneliness, the ludicrous underbelly, and shown it as child might see it: a child who laughs at the funny hats her dad sometimes wears, carts around her suitcase full of dolls, and gets up to all sorts of fun with her urchin friends in the rat-filled alley-ways. Humans are a resilient bunch, and narrator Baby (her given name) is a doomed, heart-breaking optimist, with the poet’s ability to transform the world around her into something beautiful.

O’Neill, whose radio work can be heard on Public Radio International’s “This American Life” and CBC’s “Wiretap,” channels her gift for images through Baby’s words: “His compliments,” she says about her father, “were like little cupcakes all lined up in a window.” She is also a heartbreakingly wise poet: “If you want to get a child to love you, then you should just go and hide in the closet for three or four hours. They get down on their knees and pray for your return. That child will turn you into God. Lonely Children probably wrote the Bible.”

Since Mordechai Richler died, you hear the occasional mutterings about who will be the next anglo bard of Montreal. Yann Martel took a stab by winning the Booker Prize for Life of Pi, but his writing (whatever its success) is in no way attached to Montreal. But here, I think, we have the only true contender to date, a novelist that in zeroing in on the gritty particular, has raised her book to a marvelous universal. This is the most exciting novel I have read by a Canadian writer in many years. It has its flaws (the impressionistic and circumambulatory narration feels a little forced in places; the staccato writing somewhat disjointed), but those minor quibbles are nothing compared with its strengths: the voice, the humour, the beauty, the emotion, the full broken-down world recreated in the eyes of its beholder.

O’Neill’s second novel is reportedly coming out soon. Second novels, so they say, are the tough ones. I’m rooting for her.

My rating: 4.0 stars

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