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Lullabies for Little Criminals

by Heather O'Neill

Baby is a twelve year old girl whose life has been shaped by her father’s heroin addiction. A teenager himself when she was born, Jules clearly loves his daughter in his very needy way but his parenting skills are non-existent. His ‘care’ of Baby alternates between total neglect and an over-protectiveness caused by drug-induced paranoia.

Baby’s captivating voice lifts this novel from being the fictional version of a misery memoir. It is unfaltering: at once feisty yet vulnerable, knowing yet unworldly and sweetly loving despite a lifetime of the worst sort of deprivation. But that, of course, is not all and it is O’Neill’s very considerable achievement that she has created a heroine who is also self-centred, destructive, nihilistic and seriously damaged yet who we’d still want to take home and cuddle.

It’s a shame about the title because it suggests a sentimentality that O’Neill generally manages to avoid. She treads well the fine line between grim realism and the emotionally-charged promise of redemption. This is a serious book about children who for any number of reasons are failed by their parents and society and hearing it from Baby’s view point makes it all the more powerful, making the imaginative leap from statistic or bald gruesome fact.

Don’t be put off by the grim content: this is an engaging novel, very funny in places and shot through with images that reframe the world through the clear-sighted eyes of childhood. It is a terrific debut, worthy of its place on the Orange Prize short list, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more of Heather O’Neill.


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