Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill (2006)

I’m not sure what it says about our society that this book was so well received – among many other honours, it was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards, and in 2007 it won the CBC’s Canada Reads competition – despite being a dark and depressing novel in which we watch a poor kid’s life spiral out of control and into some pretty terrible places. This is part of our world whose stories do deserve to be told, but why does it fascinate people from more comfortable backgrounds so much? Why did so many people who have never been lived in a dangerous inner city drug dealers become obsessed with the HBO show The Wire? (Myself included, I should note.) There’s something uncomfortably voyeuristic about it, particularly from a writer who doesn’t come from such a background themselves.

O’Neill lives in Montreal, but her book at several points struck me as not a faithful description of the city I live in. To give just one example, she uses the word “interstate” instead of “highway”, a habit typical to people who grew up in the US. I read a copy with a short biographical blurb and interview at the end, however, which mentioned that she was born in Montreal, left while very young, and then moved back around the age of her protagonist, who’s twelve. In fact, reading between the lines, her life seems to somewhat resemble her novel’s plot arc, and she talks about making an effort to forget her adult perspective of Montreal to write from the point of view of a child. This isn’t an easy trick, but on the balance, I think she did it fairly well, although there are occasional retrospective comments from an adult’s point of view. I can picture a child seeing the city as described here, so I’ll grant her that one, but I do wish her editor had corrected a few typically American phrases.

I have to give credit to O’Neill for contributing an original voice to canlit. I don’t personally want to read such dark novels too often, but this was a decent novel and I’m happy for her that it was a runaway success. I do wonder where she’ll go from here with a second novel – expectations will be high, and you can only tell the story of your own childhood once. I wish her luck, though, and I’ll keep an eye out for her next book.