Metro Reco: Lullabies for Little Criminals
Lullabies for Little Criminals is the winner of the 2007 CBC Canada Reads. It is fresh and stunning.
Lullabies is a tragicomedy, set in Montreal in the eighties. It’s narrated in the first person by Baby, a 12-year-old raised by her irresponsible, heroin-addicted father, Jules (her parents were 15 when she was born and her mother died when she was a baby). Baby enters puberty with all of the confusion and conflicting emotions of any other prepubescent girl, but her father is oblivious to her (the neighbourhood pimp, however, is not). Often Jules and Baby’s roles seem reversed--she is the one protecting her father: “No matter how scuzzy and crazy their parents are, kids still try to make them feel good about themselves”.
Lullabies is full of both pathos and humour. The novel’s poignancy is tempered by its wit. Baby frequently makes wry observations about the characters she’s surrounded by; for example, her gang of tough kids: “I was a little tired of their superiority complexes. Maintaining a superiority complex, especially when you were a loser, took a lot of mental effort and denial.”
Baby’s is the most unique narrative voice I’ve heard in long time. She manages to be both naïve and precocious, tough yet vulnerable. In some respects, she has the cynical mind of a street urchin; sometimes her child-like imagination allows her to survive. She is strong and smart, but she craves the love and protection of a mother.
Though the story is not autobiography, O’Neill drew on childhood experiences. She was raised by her father in Montreal and ran away to California when she was fifteen. Baby and Jules’ tough neighbourhood and run-down apartments were modelled after the places O’Neill grew up: “whenever I’m in a bleak, famously violent neighbourhood, it makes me feel comfortable and happy. It reminds me of the old apartments and sitting up late with my dad as he tried to figure out why and how we weren’t rich and famous.” Despite her poverty, she attended McGill University on a small scholarship. On school, she says, “I don’t think university made me a better writer at all. It is my observation, however, that the more knowledge and interesting information you know, the happier you are.”
Lullabies is O'Neill’s first novel. She is a contributor to This American Life, and her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine. She lives in Montreal, Canada.