The whole time I was reading Lullabies for Little Criminals, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. The narrator is just so spot on and so perfectly voiced that I figured it was only a matter of pages before the author knocked me out of that world with an accidental awkwardness. But no, Heather O’Neill can write. Really, really write. A fact that I alternately admired and felt jealous of. Because deep down, I am incapable of reading a truly well-written book without wishing I wrote it. Even when the subject matter is far, far from anything I would even dream of writing myself.
As is the case with Lullabies. This is not a story that would even cross my mind. Twelve-year-old Baby is stuck with an unfortunate name that she is not old enough to be annoyed by, thanks to her very young, not very responsible parents. And after the death of her very young, not very responsible mother, her father Jules brought her from the Quebec country town where she was born to live in Montreal in a series of shabby hotel rooms that she doesn’t realize are shabby. Because that is what it is like being a kid. You don’t realize that your life is really different from other people until you grow up and look back on it.
O’Neill so captures the kid vibe that I remember from being a kid and that I admire in kids I meet now. A few pages in, when the needle goes round and round at the end of the record, Baby tells us, “There is always the sound of children rollerskating at the end of every record.” Which, yeah? This is exactly what that scratchy silence at the end of the record sounds like.
This is the thing that I really enjoyed about Lullabies. I am a sucker for perfect sentences and this book is littered with them. Like this one about Charles Aznavour: “I imagined Aznavour sleeping in a tuxedo and owning a cat named Mustache.” Or this about Theo, a troublemaking kid who keeps showing up at the youth drop-in centre Baby hangs out at: “He walked like he was riding a unicycle.” And if the book only had these bits of awesome imagery to feed my brain, it would be enough.
But there is a strong story tying all these perfect sentences together. The kind of story that I’m hesitant to outline since the bare bones sketch will sound too much like the stories of memory and loss and overcoming that dominate the Canadian literature landscape. I mean, Baby starts the book off comfortable in her relationship and life with Jules, but as he slowly slides deeper into his heroin addiction and mental instability, she is shuffled off to live with well-meaning strangers as she dips her toes, then her foot and then her whole leg in the pool of things you shouldn’t do when you’re twelve-going-on-thirteen, while her relationship with Jules becomes increasingly strained and combative.
The thing that keeps this from being a maudlin sob fest is the voice of Baby herself. O’Neill steers clear of self-pity mode, and allows Baby to focus on the basic facts of her life and slip into her kid fantasies, so that the tone of the book feels hopeful and a little funny even while the story slinks off into some pretty dark places. And the story too bobs up to give the reader hope, like Baby’s time at the drop-in centre, or her intense, sweet and completely believable relationship with her classmate Xavier, the weird kid in class who has a selection of high-lighters which he makes great use of: “I enjoyed watching him take notes. It was like being at a really busy office.”
I have to admit, though, that I was disappointed when I read the author notes and info at the end of the book and learned that a lot of what happened in Baby’s life had happened to the author herself. Somehow, the brilliance of her imagination was dimmed for me after learning that it wasn’t entirely imagination. Which is nuts, I know, since the story is still as good as it was when I didn’t know that. And something I’m sure has nothing to do with the author: The back of the book insists on the fact that Baby is thirteen, something that irked me every time I caught a glance of the back cover. She is twelve for the majority of the book, a fact which is asserted over and over again throughout. Why could that not be on the back cover? It is a small thing to puff my feathers up over, but it’s always the small things that irritate me.