Author, Book review, Fiction, Granta, Katherine Faw Morris, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Young God’ by Katherine Faw Morris

Young-god

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 208 pages; 2015.

Some books leave a strange but memorable aftertaste on your reading palette, and Katherine Faw Morris’s debut novel, Young God, certainly does that. This may be a thin volume, but it brims with menace and sparkles with shameless in-your-face shocks, which arrive one after the other. It’s a story that gets under the skin and leaves an indelible mark. And they’re the kinds of stories I like best.

Life on the margins

The story goes something like this… When her mother dies, Nikki, a sassy, street-smart 13-year-old, moves in with her father to avoid social security putting her in care. Her father, Coy Hawkins, lives in a trailer in the woods with his 15-year-old girlfriend, Angel, whom he pimps out.

Coy was once the biggest coke dealer in the county, but he now seems to use drugs rather than sell them, a fact that shocks Nikki when she presents him with a bag of 500 “Roxies” — the opiate Roxicodone — which she stole from her mother’s boyfriend, Wesley.

She expected him to sell them first. Call somebody. However that works. Nikki didn’t snort any. Angel’s nodding on the couch. Coy Hawkins is slumped in a reclining chair. Nikki stands at its foot, completely alert.

Somewhere along the line Nikki understands that if she’s to avoid being pimped out, she must make a living elsewhere, and so she turns to the local drug trade, where she begins selling “black tar” heroin for one dollar a milligram. It is, needless to say, a rather sordid and dangerous business, but Nikki seems unaware of the consequences.

Living in this messy world, where life is cheap and teenage girls are merely sexual objects for older men to play with,  Nikki holds her own, but it’s not a life that offers any kind of hope or fulfilment.

By turns shocking and stomach-churning, Young God lifts the lid on an impoverished underclass living on the margins of society. It’s a dark, brutal, cut-throat existence, no place for anyone let alone an uneducated 13-year-old girl, who’s just lost her mother. But Nikki is not the kind of character that invokes pity: she’s headstrong, determined, full of life and willing to rush headlong into new experiences.

Short, sharp, snappy prose

I read this book, mostly with my heart in my mouth, wondering what wretched, violent thing was going to happen next. It’s a gritty story full of sleaze and sex, where characters perform base acts to numb the pain of existence. On every page there’s something to shock or to stun the reader, but it doesn’t feel manipulative or gratuitous — everything is there to inform the story, to lend it an air of authenticity, to show you how cheap life is for those who live their lives like this. It makes for a deeply unsettling reading experience.

The prose style — short, sharp, snappy — mirrors the starkness of the subject matter, but reads like the rawest of poetry.  This is also reinforced by the creative use of white space in which a single sentence or a short paragraph occasionally stands alone on a whole page:

Young-god-text-excerpt

When I came to the end of this novel, which I read in one frenzied sitting unable to tear my eyes from the disturbing story unfolding before me, I felt wrung out. Young God is a thrilling, eye-opening read, and not one that is easy to forget…

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Máire T. Robinson, New Island, Publisher, Setting

‘Skin Paper Stone’ by Máire T. Robinson

skin-paper-stone

Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 224 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

“I don’t believe there’s one true path. There’s endless paths stretching out to infinity. You just have to choose one and walk down it and see where it leads. We’re all stumbling in the dark, but how we stumble is our choice, nobody else’s.”

So says Alex, a small-time drug dealer, in Máire T. Robinson’s debut novel Skin Paper Stone. Set in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, after the economic crash, the story revolves around a group of 20-somethings trying to find their rightful place in the world.

Stevie, an ancient history graduate, has decided to return to university to pursue her PhD after spending many years as an office temp. She’s broken up with her long-term boyfriend, Donal, and moved from Dublin to Galway, where she hopes to put the shadows of the past — including a teenage brush with anorexia and ongoing body image problems — behind her.

Here she meets easy-going Joe Kavanagh — known as Kav — who works as a lowly paid kitchen hand in a tacky tourist restaurant and sells weed on the side. He’s given up his artistic ambitions, but has dreams of moving to Thailand and becoming a tattoo artist, yet spends all his money on dope and booze.

Predictably, the pair develop a romantic relationship, but Skin Paper Stone is far from being a romance: it’s about well educated but directionless people trying to find a way forward when there’s no jobs, no money and, seemingly, no hope for a better future — unless you emigrate to the New World.

A lost generation

This might make the book sound depressing, but it’s not. The story looks at the underbelly of Galway’s “lost generation” — young people who are “damaged” and have lost their way — post-boom, but none of them have given up.  While they’re struggling to keep their heads above water on a day-to-day basis, they all have (limited) aspirations: Stevie to complete her PhD on sheela-na-gigs — figurative carvings of naked women displaying oversized genatalia that adorn many churches — and Kav to set up a tattoo parlour abroad. Even the city’s two rival drug dealers, Alex and Pajo, want to be top dog, even if they have to achieve it through violence and intimidation.

The narrative is underpinned by a constant refrain, that of the need to escape: Kav longs to escape his older brother’s disdain, Stevie her parents’ over-protectiveness. Even Jacqui Maloney, a local girl who’s worked on a shop floor for years and been passed over for promotion one too many times, wants to settle down and get married — albeit with the thuggish, sexually deviant Pajo.

It helps that Robinson writes with warmth and understanding. She treats her characters — all well drawn and authentic — with kindness and empathy. These are not bad people; they’re simply caught by circumstance and trapped by their own inability to see a way forward. It’s only when Stevie and Kav are thrown together that their perspectives on life — and love — change, seemingly for the better.

Robinson also writes about Galway — its tacky tourist shops, its pubs, the river that winds through it and the people who inhabit it — so evocatively that the city feels like a character in its own right.

Gently nuanced read

Skin Paper Stone  is a gently nuanced book that refrains from casting judgement on any of the people that inhabit its pages. Perhaps the ending comes together too quickly — Stevie’s decision to “escape” is slightly rushed and, in my mind, inexplicable, and the “problem” of Pajo is resolved too easily — yet this is an enormously enjoyable story that rings true.

Finally, I must issue a slight word of caution — as much as it pains me to say this, because I don’t want it to put people off buying this book — I found some of the copy-editing sloppy. In one case an entire sentence was repeated, Brussels sprout was spelled incorrectly, a reference to Murder, She Wrote had the comma in the wrong place, and there were several speech marks missing. Hopefully a second print run may iron out these problems…

In the meantime, I very much look forward to seeing what Robinson writes next…

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Helen Garner, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting

‘Monkey Grip’ by Helen Garner

Monkey-Grip

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 246 pages; 2009.

I seem to have accidentally developed a track record in choosing books for my book group that are universally disliked. Last year I chose Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home, which scored 5.5 out of 10, and this year’s choice, Helen Garner‘s debut novel, Monkey Grip, achieved the far worse score of 4 out of 10.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised: Garner has a reputation in Australia for polarising readers, more notably for her journalistic work — The First Stone, an account of a 1992 sexual harassment scandal at the University of Melbourne, generated an avalanche of controversy. And her fiction also seems to attract equal amounts of bile and love. But of the books I have read — including Garner’s most recent novel The Spare Room and her true crime book Joe Cinque’s Consolation — I have thoroughly enjoyed.

I can’t say the same for Monkey Grip, which did not live up to my expectations.

Bohemians living in 1970s Melbourne

The story, which is set in Melbourne in the mid-1970s, is about a group of men, women and children living a Bohemian lifestyle in a series of share houses. It is narrated by Nora, a 30-something divorced woman with a school-aged daughter, who develops a sexual relationship with a junkie called Javo.

The diary-style narrative charts this on-off affair, which gradually morphs into an inter-dependent relationship that neither party is willing to break. Nora, who seems intent on sleeping with anyone simply to stave off the loneliness, turns a blind eye to Javo’s continued dependence on drugs — “Smack habit, love habit, what’s the difference?” — and his dishonest tendencies.

It is, at times, a fascinating, albeit frustrating, portrait of two people caught up in a destructive relationship. But for the most part I found it a somewhat tedious read, not helped by the all-too frequent descriptions of Nora’s dreams and her sexual activities.

A journey of self-discovery

There’s no real plot; the story is essentially one person’s journey of self-discovery.

The book’s strengths lie in Garner’s evocative prose — her descriptions of Melbourne baking in the summer sun are particularly eloquent — and the snapshot she provides of a specific time, place and group of people living an alternative lifestyle.

Nora’s voice, while slightly self-obsessed and vain, is refreshing in its frankness and its honesty. No surprise then, that Garner later claimed she adapted it directly from her personal diaries.

Monkey Grip, now regarded as an Australian classic, won the National Book Council Award in 1978 and was turned into a film in 1982 starring Noni Hazlehurst, Colin Friels and the author’s daughter, Alice Garner.

Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Loaded’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Loaded

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 151 pages; 1995.

Loaded is the first novel by Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas, he of The Slap fame. To say the book is loud, brash and in-your-face would be an understatement. It brims with raw energy, power and verve. It’s audacious — and confronting.

It’s also pornographic and those who don’t really want to know the detail of casual, often anonymous, gay sex should probably stay clear. But the sex is central to the novel’s focus, for Ari, the narrator, is 19, unemployed and trying to find his way in the world. He is bored — and self-destructive. He’s looking for any kind of experience to lift him out of his ordinary, dull, suburban existence. And if that means getting it off with strangers in nightclubs and public toilets, then so be it.

Ari is also a drug user — and occasional pusher.

Stark subject matter

Yet despite the stark subject matter and the clear-eyed prose, there’s something sad and tender about this story.

Spanning just 24 hours, we get a glimpse of Ari’s frustrating home life — his father, a Greek immigrant, calls him an “animal” and is prone to angry outbursts; his mother, an Australian, shouts and nags — and see how he prowls the city — its streets, its suburbs, its nightclubs  — because he needs “something else going on”.

What’s clear from the outset is that Ari, aimless, directionless and confused by his sexuality, has a bleak world view shaped by the things he sees around him — his parent’s unhappiness (“I love my parents but I don’t think they have much guts. Always complaining about how hard life is and not having much money. And they do shit to change any of it”), the casual racism among his peers and the ways in which the immigrant community is just as obsessed by money and class as the “skips” (white Australians).

He thinks he looks like John Cusack

He is intelligent, good-looking (“I saw John Cusack interviewed on late-night television and he looked like me”) and obsessed by movies and music. In fact, he spends most of the novel mooching around listening to mix tapes on his Walkman (the music references are particularly good if you are of a certain, a-hem, vintage).

But what resonates most is Ari’s sense of alienation — from his parents (in particular, his father’s Greek background), his older brother (who is studying at university and is not afraid to stand up against his domineering parents), his friends (who have gainful employment) and himself (never quite sure if he is gay or straight).

This alienation is reflected in the city he sees around him — the narrative is very much tied to Melbourne’s suburban enclaves and is split into four parts named East, West, South and North — which he loves and loathes in equal measure. I particularly enjoyed his references to suburbs and places I know from my time living in Melbourne (which is about the same time that events in the book take place) and thought his descriptions of the Eastern suburbs (which are more affluent than the West) — with their “continuous loop of brick-veneer houses forming a visual mantra” — pretty much spot-on.

In the East, in the new world of suburbia there is no dialogue, no conversation, no places to go out: for there is no need, there is television.

An angry young man

The strength of the novel lies in Ari’s voice, which is angry, full of self-loathing and deeply cynical. He’s not necessarily a likable character, but he is empathetically drawn.

Loaded isn’t the type of novel you read for “pleasure”, but it’s worth reading because it offers an eye-opening peek inside a rarely seen world. It’s like getting on a rollercoaster for the first time: it’s deeply frightening but once the ride ends you’re glad you found the courage to experience it.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Martin Amis, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Dead Babies’ by Martin Amis

DeadBabies

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 223 pages; 2004.

Dead Babies, first published in 1975, was Martin Amis‘ second novel. It’s a rather sordid, but richly comic tale, about a group of young and somewhat privileged Brits living it up over the course of a weekend. Think Chuck Palahniuk, but 30 to 40 years before his time.

The book is not for the faint-hearted, because, while there are no real dead babies in the story, there is plenty of illicit drug-taking, alcohol consumption and debauched sex.

The vast cast of quite vile characters, who gather at the five-bedroom, three-storey Appleseed Rectory in rural Hertfordshire, include: Quentin, who is handsome but deceitful; Andy, who is sexually aggressive; Giles, who is rich but beset by anxiety (his special fixation is losing his teeth); and Keith, who is ugly, dwarf-like and fat, and the butt of everyone’s jokes. The two females, Celia (Quentin’s wife) and Diana (Andy’s girlfriend), are less objectionable, but perhaps because neither are particularly well drawn.

Into this toxic cauldron of adolescent-like friends come three American guests: Marvell, a “postgraduate in psychology, anthropology and environment at Columbia University, underground journalist, film-maker and pop-cultural entrepreneur” with a penchant for hard drugs and pornography; Skip, a slow-talking, quite-stupid Southerner; and Roxeanne, a lively red head with a big chest.

The book is divided into two parts, “Saturday” and “Sunday”, and these are further divided into bite-sized chapters, sometimes only a few pages in length. Amis, who butts in every so often with an almost pompous omnipresent narrator’s voice to let you know he’s in charge of the story, provides carefully scripted scenarios for each character, delving into their back stories one by one before immersing them into present-day activities. It’s an effective method of telling such a seemingly chaotic and depraved tale, because it gives you a real sense of each person’s motivations and vanities and allows you to see what makes them tick. Despite the fact they’re all universally deplorable human beings, there’s something about these insights that makes you empathise just a little with their current situation.

As you would expect, the course of the weekend doesn’t run smoothly, because these people are nihilistic characters, hell-bent on self-indulgence rather than any sense of responsibility, whether to themselves or to other people. And when things start going horribly wrong, they start going horribly wrong. And just to up the ante that little bit further, Amis injects some psychological terror into the storyline. This is in the form of a series of nasty notes signed by “Johnny”, a character no-one seems to know…

Of course, this isn’t a book for everyone. Many will find it offensive, but if you get the joke and can appreciate the message at the heart of the book (which is effectively that drugs screw you up, but so, too, does money, privilege and your parents), then you’ll find much to laugh at here. Even if you have to do it with your eyes squeezed shut.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Nina Bawden, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Birds on the Trees’ by Nina Bawden

BirdsontheTrees

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 190 pages; 1972.

Recently the organisers of the Man Booker Prize announced a new one-off award: the Lost Man Booker Prize. This is designed to honour books, published in 1970, which missed out on the opportunity to win the Booker Prize.

Nina Bawden‘s The Birds on the Trees is one of 22 titles which have has been long-listed (a shortlist will be revealed in March), so what better reason to extract it from the tottering TBR pile for a quick weekend read.

It’s probably best described as an English middle-class kitchen-sink drama. The cover of my first edition Penguin paperback (see above) makes it sound like a sordid story about a teenager on drugs — “This is Toby: withdrawn, difficult, intelligent, and a drug addict. His family are baffled, defeated…” — but it’s really about parental expectations and what happens when your children do not live up to them.

Troubled child

Intriguingly, the book opens with a prologue that introduces us to Toby as a young child. He has a penchant for wandering away from home and visiting the neighbours, usually turning up at Sunday morning breakfasts with “dark famine eyes”, declaring that Mummy has given him nothing to eat. It becomes even more shocking when he appears on the doorstep at 10pm one Christmas Eve and tells them that Mummy and Daddy have gone away for Christmas and left him behind, alone. This serves to plant a seed of doubt in the reader’s mind: is Toby a liar or are his parents negligent in their care?

When we get to chapter one, Toby is now 18 years old. He has a younger sister, Lucy, who is 12, and a brother, Greg, who’s about 7. His mother, Maggie, is a successful novelist and his father, Charlie, an editor. The family is in turmoil because Toby has been expelled from his rather expensive private school for smoking pot. But his Aunt Phoebe seems to be the only one treating it with any sense of perspective.

“It’s a terrible disappointment for you and for them [your parents]. But what’s done is done. […] I hope you will treat this, not as a disaster, but a challenge! When something like this happens, it is often the moment to change direction! Lots of great men have had setbacks, worse than being expelled from school! But they haven’t sat down under them, nor retreated into self-pity. Not stagnated, but gone on to climb the heights. Failure was often just what they needed to set them on the path of success. A timely spur! Grasp the nettle, Toby, grasp the nettle.”

Sadly, Toby does not use the experience to “change direction”, because his parents already have his life mapped out for him: he will cram for his exams at home and then concentrate on the Oxford entrance in the autumn. But Toby, predictably, doesn’t want to go to Oxford — he wants to be “driving a minibus, taking kids to school” — and ends up running away to London, where he stays with a family friend, 21-year-old Hugh, in a basement flat.

Obviously there’s a lot of gnashing of teeth, wringing of hands and parents blaming themselves for what they see as their son’s downfall. Even Toby’s grandmother gets in on the act, berating her daughter when she says “we must have failed him terribly”.

“My dear girl, what are you talking about? The things that boy has had from you! Expensive schools, books, holidays — everything he could possibly want he’s been given. Too much, I sometimes thought, I don’t mind telling you now!”

A product of its time

When Toby shows signs of depression he’s carted off to a mental hospital for a nice little bit of Electric Shock Treatment. To modern minds this seems over-the-top outrageous given that Toby merely smoked a bit of pot and then “lost his way” a little, but The Birds in the Trees is a product of its time. These days the son would be travelling to Africa or backpacking to Australia on his gap year and all this overwrought drama would be treated as nothing more than a rite of passage. But here, in 1970, the generation gap is so wide as to be unbridgeable, and the dangers of drugs — pot, LSD, heroin — are around every corner.

What I liked about this novel, apart from its easy-to-read quality, is the ways in which Bawden explores the drama from every family member’s point of view, so what you get is a rich, complicated tapestry of petty jealousies, sibling rivalry, love, loyalty, empathy and fear. She’s not afraid to show everyone’s faults and foibles, so that even if you think that Maggie and Charlie are too over-protective, too prone to mollycoddle their son, you can at least understand their point of view.

Family life comes in shades of grey, and Bawden paints it faithfully and realistically. Is this enough to win the Lost Man Booker? I’m not sure. While The Birds on the Trees is a wonderful “blast from the past” I think the hysterical nature of parental obsession detailed within it almost comes across as too ludicrous to be true. But it’s definitely a book worth reading, because there’s plenty to mull over, and the characterisation, story-telling and structure of the novel are superb.

Author, Book review, Canongate, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Nick Cave, Publisher, Setting

‘The Death of Bunny Munro’ by Nick Cave

DeathofBunnyMunro

Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 304 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If modern fiction has produced a more deluded, creepy, sex-obsessed “hero” than Bunny Munro I’ve yet to encounter him. If you’ll forgive the crudity, Bunny Munro is a wanker — a literal wanker. He’s obsessed with “beating off”, as he puts it, and he doesn’t particularly care where he does it or how often.

If that’s not enough, he sleeps with prostitutes, waitresses, clients, in fact anyone who succumbs to his lecherous ways and sexual magnetism.

And yet Bunny Munro is a married man, and, by his own account, a very happily married man, who loves his wife deeply but fails to truly understand her “medical condition”. The book opens with her suicide, which seems to have very little emotional impact on Bunny — when he discovers her body he notes that “her tits look good”. It gets worse. Midway through her funeral, after eying up all the female guests, he’s in the toilets masturbating. Later he has unsatisfying sex with the girlfriend of his best friend.

But while he seems unable to feel any grief over the loss of his wife, as a reader you can’t help but feel some sympathy for him. Perhaps the shock has rendered him emotionally crippled? Has her death not yet hit home?

It’s when Bunny takes to the road, his nine-year-old son, Bunny Junior, in tow, that you get the true measure of the man. As he peddles cosmetics door to door, making desperate attempts to jump in the pants of countless depressed housewives up and down England’s south-east coast, you begin to understand he’s losing his grip. He’s been a bad husband, a bad father and a truly awful salesman, but his shocking lack of self-awareness means he never truly realises what a terrible, treacherous human being he really is. It is you, the reader, who comes to realise he’s unhinged, that his psychopathic tendencies are becoming more and more pronounced, and yet he’s been so sympathetically drawn it’s difficult to hate him.

Cave achieves this measure of pity by painting a much worse character in the form of the “Horned Devil”, a knife-wielding murderer whose trail of death is being reported on the nightly news, and whom Bunny himself finds scary and unbelievable.

And it also helps that Bunny is a father, a terrible wayward father, but a father nonetheless, and that his son, a smart, academically inclined kid, hero-worships him. Bunny might be a creep who preys on vulnerable women, but he’s human and even though you know he’s going to meet his end at some point — hence the book’s title — there’s hope of redemption.

While The Death of Bunny Munro treads some dark territory, it’s incredibly funny in places, which means you end up laughing at the “hero” rather than wincing at his every ridiculously audacious move. And those who are familiar with Cave’s long musical career and Australian background will appreciate his in-house joke (although it does wear thin after several repetitions) in which Bunny Munro has a “thing” for Australian songstress Kylie Minogue. (There’s an apology to her at the end of the novel.)

Reading this book is a bit like riding a rollercoaster, full of immense ups and downs, with unexpected twists and turns, and a cracking pace that threatens to derail it all. Whether you want to get on the ride depends on your constitution, because the only fluffy thing about this book is the bunny on the cover. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Heather O'Neill, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Lullabies for Little Criminals’ by Heather O’Neill

Lullabies

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 Debtspublished 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.