Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 384 pages; 2008.
Quercus may be my new favourite publisher. In recent months I have read several books — Nefertiti, The Tenderness of Wolves and Bad Debts — published by this burgeoning publishing house based in London, and so when Lullabies for Little Criminals landed in my mailbox this week — the result of a mid-week “trolley dash” around Amazon.co.uk — I decided to bump it right to the top of my incredibly long reading queue.
Despite being longlisted for this year’s Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Lullabies for Little Criminals has received little press attention here in the UK. But in its native Canada it has been critically acclaimed, winning the 2007 Canada Reads, an annual battle of the books competition, as well as the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Best Novel 2007. It was also shortlisted for the 2007 Governor General’s Awards, the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award 2007, the Amazon.ca/ Books in Canada First Novel Award 2007 and the Grand Prix du Livre de Montreal 2007. With such ringing endorsements, I was anxious to see if it lived up to all the hype.
The story follows Baby — yes, that’s her real name — a streetwise 12-year-old who lives with her widowed father, Jules. Jules is a 26-year-old junkie, who spends most of his time scoring “chocolate milk” — a euphemism for heroin — and finding ways to raise the cash to feed his addiction. This means Baby is often left on her own for days at a time, although she still insists on meeting her 9pm curfew because it gives shape to her life.
The pair lead a transient existence, moving from one seedy apartment to another. Baby also does a stint in a foster home (when Jules is hospitalised with tuberculosis) and later she lives with a friendly neighbour (when Jules goes into rehab) — and all the while she never seems to lose the love for the father whom she adores so much.
Despite the below-the-poverty-line existence, Baby is a bright, resourceful and fearless child who bubbles with optimism. She does well at school and makes friends easily, although her choices sometimes leave a lot to be desired. When she falls under the charms of the local pimp, who grooms her to start turning tricks, not even Baby seems to realise the inherent danger she has put herself in. This is a young girl on the verge of womanhood who simply wants to love and to be loved unaware she is looking for it in all the wrong places.
There’s something very wise and honest about this novel, which O’Neill claims is based on some of her own childhood experiences. The prose is incredibly restrained, with not a shred of sentimentality. It’s only when the reader adds up the catalogue of incidents and sees the path of destruction that Baby is heading down that any kind of emotion bubbles to the surface: it’s unbearably sad, all the more because Baby doesn’t realise this.
Initially I doubted the authenticity of the narrator’s voice, which sounds too mature and reflective for a 12-year-old. I can only assume that the story is being filtered through adult eyes and that it is being told by a much older Baby looking back on her life. The occasional references to “back then” would support this theory.
The beauty of Lullabies for Little Criminals is that it brings to life in a dry-eyed, matter-of-fact way a world few of us would know. And like the very best literary fiction, it leaves an indelible print on the reader, as if by the very act of reading it your own sheltered world has tilted a little on its axis. This is a universal story that deserves a bigger audience, so I can only hope British (and Australian) readers will fall in love with it as much as our North American counterparts.