From Publishers Weekly
In her debut novel, This American Life
contributor O'Neill offers a narrator, Baby, coming of age in Montreal just before her 12th birthday. Her mother is long dead. Her father, Jules, is a junkie who shuttles her from crumbling hotels to rotting apartments, his short-term work or moneymaking schemes always undermined by his rage and paranoia. Baby tries to screen out the bad parts by hanging out at the community center and in other kids' apartments, by focusing on school when she can and by taking mushrooms and the like. (She finds sex mostly painful.) Stints in foster care, family services and juvenile detention ("nostalgia could kill you there") usually end in Jules's return and his increasingly erratic behavior. Baby's intelligence and self-awareness can't protect her from parental and kid-on-kid violence, or from the seductive power of being desired by Alphonse, a charismatic predator, on the one hand, and by Xavier, an idealistic classmate, on the other. When her lives collide, Baby faces choices she is not equipped to make. O'Neill's vivid prose owes a debt to Donna Tartt's The Little Friend
; the plot has a staccato feel that's appropriate but that doesn't coalesce. Baby's precocious introspection, however, feels pitch perfect, and the book's final pages are tear-jerkingly effective. (Oct.)
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Baby's mother is dead; her hapless father is a heroin addict; home is a series of tiny, increasingly squalid apartments in Montreal's seedier precincts; her boyfriend is a pimp; and--about the time she turns 13--she becomes a prostitute. Not exactly the stuff of Sweet Valley High--more like the worst of the teen problem novels of the 1970s--on steroids! And, yet, first-time-author O'Neill somehow infuses her troubling story with a kind of heartbreaking innocence, thanks to her central conceit that Baby, her father (who was only 15 when she was born), and her friends are only pretending to be criminals to get by. The question of whether they will get by adds an element of suspense to this sad, almost wistful story, which occasionally strays dangerously close to sentimentality. O'Neill is a wonderful stylist, though, and the voice she has created for Baby is original and altogether captivating. Michael CartCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
This strikingly original portrait of a year in the life of a young Montrealer opens with dash and optimism. Baby, almost twelve, and her father, Jules, twenty-six, have taken up residence at a once-stylish downtown hotel. Like all their friends, Jules exudes style: fur hat, long leather jacket, slippery leather boots. He also has a heroin habit. Yet Montreals decrepit downtown is viewed through Babys eyes as an enchanted place where everyone plays an endless game of dress-up. Having Jules as her dad-her parents were fifteen when she was born-has made her wise, however. Having a young parent meant you had to pack up your stuff and run away; this time he has sold a twenty-year-old pals guitars. Going out for chocolate milk means dad needs to score. But the strong love and good memories between them keep her hopeful.
Depending on the severity of Jules troubles (TB treatment, Detox, his harsh reaction to Babys adolescence), Baby moves in and out of foster homes and even into a detention centre where every kid she meets is a character. Although nothing shakes her love for Jules, theres only one career option for an attractive, neglected girl, no matter how bright and imaginative. Attracting a local pimp, Baby enters the sex trade while still scoring As at school. These scenes are hard to bear. But ONeill allows us to see beyond the squalor into the heart of a girl who wont-through pluck, brains, and a last-minute authorial rescue-be destroyed.
Although she sounds sometimes like Holden Caulfield, the spirit of Leonard Cohens Suzanne hovers over this Montreal story: There are heroes in the seaweed/There are children in the morning/They are leaning out for love/And they will lean that way forever. This time its Baby who holds the mirror to an extraordinary world the rest of us tend to tune out. Nancy Wigston
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
About the Author
HEATHER O’ NEILL’s first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, earned accolades around the world, including being named winner of Canada Reads 2007 and the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and being a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Orange Prize. She is a regular contributor to CBC Books, CBC Radio, National Public Radio, The New York Times Magazine, The Gazette (Montreal) and The Walrus. She was born in Montreal, where she currently lives.