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

Harper Collins Canada. Purchased at Chapters Indigo.

I picked up Lullabies for Little Criminals because it’s on the reading list of a class on Montreal authors that I’m hoping to take at Concordia University.  In the story, Baby is a bright, intelligent twelve-year-old who is motherless and lives with her heroin-addicted father in a rough area in downtown Montreal. She’s surrounded by poverty, violence, drugs, prostitution but with her childlike wonder she’s still able to see beauty in her squalid surroundings.

I was struck by the sordidness of the story’s setting. I’ve lived in Montreal close to two years now so I’m familiar with the area where the story takes place but it was hard to picture a child growing up in those surroundings. A very naïve attitude on my part because I know that children are often forced to live in horrible conditions. The “lucky” ones like Baby manage to salvage part of their childhood and keep a measure of hope for their future despite the obstacles in their way.

The reversal of the parent-child roles is also very present in the story.  In many instances, it’s Baby who seems to have the role of caretaker in the relationship with her father Jules. Jules is impulsive, immature and selfish. He cares for Baby but he’s unable to offer the stability she needs. Later in the story when Jules’s abuse and inattention pushes Baby into the arms of the pimp Alphonse, I felt her complete vulnerability and helplessness at her inability to control her circumstances.

Lullabies for Little Criminals is wonderful but heartbreaking. I felt the book got harder and harder to read but the effort was definitely worth it. It’s a harsh story but it’s not without beauty and hope.

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