Lullabies from Heather O’Neil

by katiclops

So as I muddled along through MAUS and In the Realm... I began explaining to my book compatriots that I was coming to the realization that I had become a sad book person—and further to that, not only was I reading sad books, but my shelves were filled with them. And after filling 20 feet with new-to-me books, I wasn’t about to purchase any new ones…let alone to to the library!

And so, my dear friend and fellow book lover contacted me a few days later “Oh I got books,” they said “you want funny books? You want books—I’ll bring you over a couple next time I see you.” We lured them to our apartment with vegetarian lasagna and heaps of local salad, and lo and behold, not one, but four books emerged from her bag. “I know you said you wanted funny…but…!” Our friend is in the process of breaking into the publishing industry here in town, and is the unrivaled  lover of Canadian literature among my friends. Every single book that emerged from her bag was Canadian. She provided short biographies of the authors and synopsis of each as she stacked them on the floor. “This one. Heather O’Neil, have you read Heather O’Neil? Have you listened to her on This American Life? No? She’s from Montréal, you’re going to love this book, it’s a little weird…what did you just finish reading? A Year in the Merde, non? You can totally handle this…most well written book ever. Okay, and then you have to read…” (she pulled another from her bag; I continued to dress the salad as he watched the whole process, he seemed somewhat charmed that the two of us were both so passionate about books: what crazy ladies!

The first novel I was instructed to read (Lullabies for Little Criminals) was the 2007 winner of the CBC Canada Reads competition, and had half-been on my radar for awhile. The bright green cover featured a stencilled illustration of a young girl skipping. “It’s a little intense,” my friend prefaced, “it’s the story of a girl raised by an addict—she’s twelve, it’s not that depressing…just a little weird. So well written.” She attempted to quell the look of hesitation and panic that was clearly beginning to emote over my face. Light reading, I had approached her under the pretence of elevating my current glut of addictions and Holocaust literature…but her reviews were glowing, and I have nothing but trust in her recommendations—I started in on the novels immediately.

Lullabies for Little Criminals is narrated by the terrifyingly quiet, steady voice of Baby, a twelve year old girl. Her mother died when she was a few weeks old, and her father has been addicted to heroin most of the life that Baby can remember. The story is set over the course of about a year, the cadence of the book so appropriate—time stretches out and fills in space as one would expect time would do for a twelve year old. Weeks seem like eons. Parents are small gods, regardless of what they do to you. You are resoundingly struck by how quickly Baby has had to grow up. That almost post-modern aspect of the style of writing, the stepping outside yourself to address the situation à la Eggers, is incredibly tragic and omnipotent. She writes in short, simple sentences, knitting together powerful, poignant images, and developing her character. I’ve extracted a longer passage here to best give the feel of the book:

Early the next morning there was a knock at the door. It was a postman with a registered letter addressed to my dad. Jules was still fast asleep so I signed for it and opened it up in the kitchen. It said that we were behind in the rent and if we didn’t do something to rectify the situation they’d take action to have us evicted.

I looked around and realized I would be glad never to come back to this place. What unsettled me was that Jules hadn’t been paying the rent. I hadn’t even realized this. Jules always tried to pay the rent. It was only when things were really bad that he couldn’t. That we were actually getting evicted must have meant that things were at their worst. I had been so busy with destroying my own life that I hadn’t realized he was doing the same with his.

I should have noticed the signs that he was heading for the street. He didn’t eat anymore. He smoked all the butts in the ashtray in order to get one last puff out of them. He spent practically the whole night in the bathtub. He started collecting things that had no apparent value. He brought home a ceramic teddy bear with balloons; he washed it and put it in the kitchen sink and put it on the coffee table in the living room. As I looked at it now, it was so ugly it broke my heart.

I realized that he’d been sad. When he was depressed, he acted as if he were deaf, as if he couldn’t hear what was around him. He distanced himself from the world. He started to have the habit some homeless people have, of standing still. You see only the beautiful things when you stand still. You only see the things you don’t ordinarily notice. The birds are the prettiest things, I imagine.

Telling the story in this way, as a twelve year old girl, moreover a daughter, so she’s filled with extra love, this really non-judgemental portrait is painted of her father, and of his ailments. It’s so honest and cold because it is not clinical, but rather filled with acceptance. Even though Jules, her dad, is part of one of the most bedraggled, judged castes in societies, he is still her dad, and she loves him, and tries exhaustingly to understand him, but at the same time has learned through experience that he is also beyond understanding:

Tiger balm was the perfect cure for all ailments that were hard to believe in, that you couldn’t see the doctor about. Since he always smelled like tiger balm now, one could only assume that he was trying to treat some very deep wound.

This book provided me with a very human, different was of understanding addiction.  In the Realm is always nuanced with this clinical bourgeois narrative.  Although Dr. Maté attempts to draw parallels between his own childhood dramas and those of the residents of the DTES, he falls short.  The rich vocabulary he has at his disposal, the way he refers to his own addiction (compulsive classical CD acquisition) is this giant white tiger in the room. Addiction or not, there are deep societal prejudices that dictate that referring to the London Symphony Philharmonic’s 1987 recording of Mozart’s Four Concertos for French Horn is staunchly less gauche than referring to that wicked drug trip you had when you thought all the walls were made of soap.

This is why I keep reading books like this-partially to have a better understanding of addiction itself, but also partially to understand how a multifaceted issue can present itself so differently through different lenses and roles in society–and consequently have such profoundly different (albeit often subtle) effects.  This book also became a different, crippling way to understand childhood.

(c/o the lovely miss Tara Williamson)

On a totally different level, this book different was a new way of seeing Montréal. Montréal was the first city I visited “on my own” (i.e., with my best friend), when I was in highschool. It was the first time and place I ever snuck into a bar to drink, the first time riding the Metro, wandering the streets of St. Laurent and St. Catherine. A gritty city of change and a little bit of magic. Of potential, and reality. The first night I was ever in Montréal, within HOURS I saw my host (15 years old) getting groped by a random homeless man in a McDonald’s. At the same time, it was a city filled with more wealth and beauty and coldness but also potential than I had ever seen. I moved back a few years ago for the winter. The area of town where I lived was filled with tall, beautiful houses, with spiral fire escapes and patisseries on every corner. The neighbourhood across the street was a Hasidic Jewish community, and very family oriented. I associated Fridays with little girls dressed in pink snowsuits being pushed around by men in dark woollen coats with fur top hats. But Montréal has always held something more. Biking through the largely empty quiet streets of St.Henri at night, biking home along Christophe-Colomb or trying to find food near the bus station, getting lost getting to the south plateau, getting out to PI-X, this is where the edges of the Montréal O’Neil talks about pushes out. Working to deliver food in the South East end, where everything smells of cigarette smoke, and the small, modest little two storey factory houses are packed full of people. The people downtown, the Mission. The way the sky looks in the winter.

(Tara Williamson also has a great paintings series of St. Henri)

I have no idea why the sky looks so fundamentally different in every city I have ever lived in. In every place. It’s so strange, but whenever I move, the sky is the first thing I notice, and the thing I notice most. The way light, and mood is reflected against the air and skyline. The way the air smells, the viscosity of it against your skin. Montréal is cold, and grey, but there is a depth to the monotone that I have not seen in other cities, a cold chill that is invigorating and optimistic and also so all-encompassing it is nausating. There is a power. There is hope and passion. Bits of this emerge, understated in O’Neil’s book.

I don’t know why I was upset about not being an adult. It was right around the corner. Becoming a child again is what is impossible. That’s what you have legitimate reason to be upset over. Childhood is the most valuable thing that’s taken away from you in life, if you think about it.

Finally, this book resonated with me because of what I’ve been going through physically, the obsessive focus on fertility that people are constantly projecting on women my age. What my friends are going through, as new, young parents. The differences our lives have taken, that continue to multiple, and create our children into profoundly different human beings. It all starts out so slight. We are all in the same high school, even the same university. One friend, acts on her tendency towards books, her proficiency in academia and spirals off into sabbaticals and houses where every surface will be covered with books. Into jammed little sessional apartments and a child raised in sunny, grassy university campuses raised around wine and cheese and olives, and parents staying up late working and composing music. Another friend acts on her love of women and children, and becomes a midwife. Her child is being raised by her and her partner and surrounded by other women, will be raised in an open environment of large, passionate discussions, open sexuality and empowered by the female sex. These things, that all seemed like such small little rumples when we were younger, are being magnified intensely by the lives our children are destined to lead. These differences in childhood will make fundamentally different people, bound together only by imagination. In the afterward, and interview with O’Neil captures her in saying:

A lot of children grow up in poverty with flawed parents but their inner world is still as inherently filled with wonder and innocence as children who are kept away from the city’s underbelly. In fact, they might have more of a need for this type of imagination as a defense mechanism.

That is why this novel is great-not because it is a truthful first hand account of childhood immersed in addiction, but rather that children are these super resilient, lovely, amazing little things that keep kids going. My friend summed it up perfectly during a rapid exchange of texts:

“It’s not THAT sad – she’s so… seeemingly unaffected by it, you know? Like you’re probably sadder than she is, which I think is kind of a strange message of the book.”

Ultimately, this book is about the resilience and fragility of childhood. It’s about imagination, and part of the sadness I felt during the novel, was that this imagination that protects children is so inherit and biological that it stiches across all castes and classes.  At one point, O’Neil describes looking at snails with a classmate, with a tender shared intimacy that appears nowhere else in the novel.

This book evokes a mourning for lost childhood and an increased trust in it’s strength. It’s a lullaby for little criminals everywhere.