Lullabies for Little Criminals

by Heather OĂNeill
330 pages,
ISBN: 0060875070

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First Novels
by Nancy Wigston

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill (HarperCollins, 330 pages, $17.50, paper ISBN: 0060875070). This strikingly original portrait of a year in the life of a young Montrealer opens with dash and optimism. Baby, almost twelve, and her father, Jules, twenty-six, have taken up residence at a once-stylish downtown hotel. Like all their friends, Jules exudes style: fur hat, long leather jacket, slippery leather boots. He also has a heroin habit. Yet Montreal's decrepit downtown is viewed through Baby's eyes as an enchanted place where everyone plays an endless game of dress-up. Having Jules as her dad¨her parents were fifteen when she was born¨has made her wise, however. "Having a young parent meant you had to pack up your stuff and run away"; this time he has sold a twenty-year-old pal's guitars. Going out for "chocolate milk" means dad needs to score. But the strong love and good memories between them keep her hopeful.
Depending on the severity of Jules' troubles (TB treatment, Detox, his harsh reaction to Baby's adolescence), Baby moves in and out of foster homes and even into a detention centre where every kid she meets is a character. Although nothing shakes her love for Jules, there's only one career option for an attractive, neglected girl, no matter how bright and imaginative. Attracting a local pimp, Baby enters the sex trade while still scoring A's at school. These scenes are hard to bear. But O'Neill allows us to see beyond the squalor into the heart of a girl who won't¨through pluck, brains, and a last-minute authorial rescue¨be destroyed.
Although she sounds sometimes like Holden Caulfield, the spirit of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" hovers over this Montreal story: "There are heroes in the seaweed/There are children in the morning/They are leaning out for love/And they will lean that way forever." This time it's Baby who "holds the mirror" to an extraordinary world the rest of us tend to tune out.

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