Not for the squeamish or faint of heart.
On the seedy streets of the red-light district in Montreal we are observers to the lonely and depressing existence of Baby, our twelve-year-old heroin. Heroin serves to identify more than just the lead, heroic character in this story, as it also is the drug of choice for Baby’s young and irresponsible father, Jules. With her mother long since dead, and no real ties to their remaining family members, Baby and Jules must fight the mean streets defenceless and alone, their foremost challenge always basic survival.
Lullabies for Little Criminals is a coming of age story, for the downtrodden, misfortunate and abandoned. By the end of the novel Baby is only thirteen years old, yet she seems to have lived a lifetime, as she transforms from a child to adolescent to adult, all within the span of two years. Desperate to find love and feel like she belongs to something or even someone, Baby is constantly changing and moulding herself to what she feels others want or need from her. She soon realizes that she is desired by some, and although they happen to be a pimp, perverted paedophiles or other wayward children, this attention is better than being alone. As she bounces from foster home to detention centre to the sketchy one-bedrooms that her father temporarily provides, a solid identity is the least of her worries.
Heather O’Neill’s tumultuous upbringing in Montreal, after being abandoned by her mentally ill mother, obviously served her well when writing this gravely accurate depiction of growing up on the streets. Her descriptions of how drugs and alcohol can instantly provide a physical and emotional comfort, where there usually were none, are spot on. The portrayal of the street hierarchy, with the most neglected and down-and-out kids reigning as the supreme leaders, and how they wear their hunger and abandonment as a badge of honour, is appalling but irrefutable.
Lullabies tragically flawed and pathetic characters serve as a reminder to many that destitution can be found blocks away from our cushy and privileged lives, and that the cycle of addiction and poverty is as common and unfaltering as the cycle of life. If you can stomach it, open up your eyes to a parallel reality and read this devastating work of ‘fiction.’