A friend gave me this book while we were in Winnipeg because I left my copy of The Thirteenth Tale on the plane (yet another in a long line of problems plaguing our otherwise totally awesome trip). Now, I never leave home without more than one book, like, never. I hate being stuck reading something that I might not like and not having any options. Generally, this means I have books stashed all over the place: in suitcases, carry-ons, purses, RRHB's backpack, you name it, I'll put a book in there. Of course, this time, the only time I leave the house with one book, is the moment I choose to leave my book on the airplane from hell. Whatever. I was stranded with nothing to read. It's like being left out from your favourite party, not having a book, and I really hate that.
Annnwwaaay. Instead of going to a bookstore, said friend loaned me Heather O'Neill's first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals. Set in Montreal, I'm thinking in either the late 1970s or early 1980s, the novel tells the story of Baby, a girl who turns 13 over the course of the story. But this is no average bildungsroman, as Baby's journey takes her as far away from the normal kid on a bike, Hollywood troubled teen, as you can possibly imagine. Her father, Jules, who was only 15 when she was born, is a heroin addict; totally incapable of parenting, even after he gets out of rehab, Baby is forced to grow up on her own, painfully noting time and time again, about what not having a mother means to a girl that age. Her own mother, who we hear very little about in a concrete way until the end of the book, died when she was a baby.
The novel falls into the cracks and crevices of the seedy Montreal streets as Baby and Jules move from one rundown apartment to the next. Constantly in and out of social service situations (group home, neighbour's house, juvie), Baby has no one to guide her, and making her own way truly isn't making anything better, as she falls into a terribly destructive relationship with a pimp named Alphonse. And every time Baby makes a bad decision, your heart breaks just a little; she's smart, she's beautiful, but she has no chance or opportunity to take a different path.
O'Neill's writing tumbles down into simile upon simile, which sometimes had my head spinning, but it's so lovely and absolutely engaging that it didn't matter to me that it might be a little bit too much. The story rushes along, sometimes breaking back into Baby's memories, and almost crashes into the redemptive ending, like the end to a really good rock song. Of the 50-odd books I've read this year, this one got caught in my throat (all motherless daughter stories do, dammit!) and I related to it on many levels, not because I had anything in common with the protagonist, but because O'Neill does such a good job of creating her world that you immediately empathize with Baby, all you want is for her to succeed. I'm not going to spoil the ending, in fact, I'm not going to say much more at all, except for a first-time novel, it's pretty damn outstanding.