Review: Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill

Baby lives with her father, Jules, a heroin addict.  She doesn’t remember her mother:

He and my mother had both been fifteen when I was born. She had died a year later, so he’d been left to raise me all by himself. It didn’t make him any more mature than any other twenty-six-year-old, though.  He practically fell on the floor and died when a song he liked came on the radio. He was always telling people that he was color-blind because he thought it made him sound original. He also didn’t look too much like a parent … I thought of him as my best friend, as if we were almost the same age. (p. 4)

Jules tries to make a living and support his habit by peddling merchandise at flea markets.  To stay one step ahead of their landlord they seem to always be on the move.  Baby knows how to fit her entire life into a small suitcase.  Despite all these disadvantages, Baby is smart and does well in school.  She seems determined to overcome the odds, but her world is turned upside down when Jules goes into rehab, and Baby into the foster care system. Over the next year, Baby moves in and out of care, is placed into a remedial program at school, and gets sucked into the unhealthy lifestyle on the streets of Montreal.

Baby narrates her story with an authentic twelve-year-old’s voice, and really got on my nerves for the first half of the book.  But as her personal hardships intensified, so did my sympathy, and I found myself pulling for her.  She was often left on her own for days at a time, and had to grow up far too quickly.  I understood why she did what she did, but wished I could influence her choices (I’m avoiding spoilers here).

Such a realistic and gritty story should have been “unputdownable.”  It thought it was an interesting and unique book, but had no problem setting it aside.  It may have just been my mood this past week; I still recommend reading this Orange Prize nominee.

I read this book for Orange January.  Come join the fun!

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4 thoughts on “Review: Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill

  1. I was one reader who did find it unputdownable; I remember being surprised by this at the time, but I could not look away from Baby’s narrative. I appreciate the way you’ve distinguished between understanding her choices and simultaneously wishing they were different: I felt exactly the same way. Parts of the story are certainly…uncomfortable…to put it lightly.

    • BIP, uncomfortable is right! Having teen daughters myself I’m keenly aware of self esteem and body image issues and I really wanted Baby to have some more positive role models to help her mature into a well-adjusted young woman.

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