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100 Books in a Year #73: Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill

By Brian Prisco | Books | April 23, 2009 |

By Brian Prisco | Books | April 23, 2009 |

This was like watching a Canadian version of “Jerry Springer.” It would have felt too awkward were it set in America. It wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.

Lullabies tells the story of Baby, a 12-year-old girl stumbling through life in Montreal with her 20-something heroin junkie father. Baby’s mother died when she was but an infant, so she never really knew her. Her father is still a child himself, having been a father at 15, and essentially spends his days trying to be 20 with a tween in tow. Most of this is coped with a bizarre semi-homeless gypsy lifestyle, leaping from flea markets to dingy apartments to rehab, while Baby follows in his undertow, swirling in and out of the social services system, juvie, and staying with kind strangers.

Baby falls through all the tropes one would expect of this kind of coming-of-age streets novel. She has loves, both innocent and sinister, dabbles in drugs and prostitution, drinking and mischief. What’s amazing about the novel is there are moments where you are suddenly socked in the gut with the notion that “holy fuck — this girl is 12.″ Awful, awful shit befalls her — things that would be tragic in most any age — but then it becomes apparent that this is all happening to a girl just barely beyond puberty’s dusk.

Most effective is the narrative style, which comes straight from Baby, so it’s a lethal combination of the playfulness of a child and the wisdom of the streets. She’s the kind of girl who still plays with dolls, but also knows where to go to score weed and mushrooms. She swears like a sailor, and giggles like a schoolgirl. It’s endearing, but then the dawning of her actual age and what she endures comes along and tucks you under.

There’s not much to the story itself. Baby sort of abides like the Hannah Montana version of The Dude. She’s self-aware at how fucked up her life is, but hasn’t lived enough of it to realize just how wrong that shit really is. But the narrative is so buoyant and without structure, that it comes off like a particularly effective afterschool special or episode of “Maury.” It’s like, Damn, I’m glad I’m not the father, like that fucking dood. Then you flip the channel and it’s already gone.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here.

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