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Books

Governor General's Literary Awards 2007

Posted by MP / October 31, 2007

311007_lullabies2.jpgThis is the first in a series of posts covering the English fiction shortlist for the 2007 Governor General’s Literary Awards. Look for the rest soon, and my prediction of the winner (announced November 27.)

I wanted to like this book. Canadians don’t think nearly enough about our neighbours in poverty (since the American example is so much worse), so I anticipated Heather O’Neill’s novel Lullabies for Little Criminals as something that might wake people up to the invisibles on our city streets. It sounded palatable, but it turned out puffy, like a donut that goes down too easy.

A book about misery, sickness, abuse and alienation packaged in a cheery retro green and sold as a “beautiful” morsel made me suspicious. If a story about a child prostitute who fights for a five-dollar bill is well written, “beautiful” may certainly be one word to describe it, but it would never be the first. That suggests something else.

The book lacked a sense of menace, and my impression throughout was that an adult imagining a life of childish poverty had written it. There are some touching moments, and strong, convincing emotion, but almost exclusively these occur between the narrator Baby and her father Jules; based on what I’ve read about O’Neill this makes perfect sense, since it is the aspect of the book closest to her past. The rest just isn’t as good. In fact, it's often strangely unbelievable.

It was not individual weaknesses that disappointed me the most, it was their combination in eviscerating the book’s politics. Baby survives, but we don’t see her become wiser; instead, she is rescued, undermining any sense of her development. Our heroine whisked away to the safety of the countryside, we’re left with a tired urban-rural cliché, some night-time sky imagery, and the feeling that we should send all the bums, junkies and prostitutes to healthy farms somewhere. Then we’d be able to buy things and not feel offended by the man outside the store, asking us for a hundredth of what we’d just cheerfully handed over. This is definitely not what O’Neill meant to write about, and that’s my point.

(Cover image from www.harpercollins.com)

Discussion

50 Comments

shirley / November 4, 2007 at 09:27 am
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Little Criminals was one of my favorite books of the last year. I completely disagree with you about the book's politics. What is more boring or more cliche than another Canadian Goth novel with a victim-child, beaten down by the horrors of the world?
What I liked about Baby was that she was resilient--that she went through shitty things and those things her hurt a lot-- but they didn't define her. She never loses her sense of beauty or her sense of wonder, and she also never loses her sense of herself.

What gets left out of the 'victim' story is that lots of people come out the other side of lousy childhoods and do really well. Sure, as a society we can't forget our responsibility to protect children and ensure that everyone has equal opportunity. But don't you think it's kind of soul destroying to a disadvantaged kid to reduce him or her to a shopping list of miseries? Why can't the literary Baby have moments to be a kid, just like anyone else?

You could read the end as a 'rescue'. But how do we know that Baby's last rural adventure is going to be so different from her time in the rural foster home, or previous outings with her dad? I think the ending is a little more complex ..
Christine / November 4, 2007 at 08:59 pm
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I loved the book, it made me feel very nostalgic for the Montreal of that era (late 80s I think?) What drove me crazy is all the proofreading errors. "Park" Avenue/Avenue Parc (sic), place names spelled wrong, and so on. It took away from the story.
Lev / November 7, 2007 at 02:57 pm
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I'm glad we disagree, and I want to clarify one thing: I didn't mean to say that Baby should be reduced to a victim, only that O'Neill's prose (and dubious fact-checking) suffocates the novel's realism to the point where Baby's resiliency doesn't mean anything, since the dangers of her world aren't believable.
carrie / November 21, 2007 at 01:57 pm
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"since the dangers of her world aren't believable".

Huh?

It's a work of fiction. Fiction means not-real. I really don't understand your take on this novel.

"It was not individual weaknesses that disappointed me the most, it was their combination in eviscerating the book’s politics. Baby survives, but we don’t see her become wiser; instead, she is rescued, undermining any sense of her development. "

You are using a lot of words here that don't make any sense. The book's politics? Are you saying that every book has a political agenda? How about it just being a story? A story about a few fictional characters.

I agree with what Shirley said - Baby has not been "rescued" at the end; it is so much more complex than that.

Re: O’Neill’s “dubious fact-checking” –huh? It is a fictional story and is presented as such. Blaming an author of a fictional piece for poor fact-checking or poor proof-reading shows a distinct misunderstanding of the publication process.
Nathaniel / December 4, 2007 at 04:16 pm
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Dear Carrie,

You seem a bit confused. Your definition of fiction in essence seems to be "stories that don't need to make sense". A work of fiction does not need to be absolutely realistic, true, that's only one approach to writing, but when a novelist sets out to depict a gritty, poverty-stricken childhood, it seems like the closer she hews to realism the better the whole novel is going to be. Lev's objection seems to be that the style of the book is all wrong for the subject matter, and that it would work better if it were less "beautiful", and I think his comment about fact-checking indicates that he didn't find the events themselves all that believable. Perhaps it is the style vs. content idea you object to, which you could certainly make a case for, but you haven't here. That's actually a discussion I'd be interested in having.

Also, the rest of what you're saying doesn't make a lot of sense either. You say Lev asserts that the book has a political agenda, when really it's just about people. Any story about class or money inherently has a political component to it. The book doesn't have to come out screaming "The government has to do something about poverty!" to have a political message. You may not agree with Lev's interpretation of that message, but again, you preferred to imply that he was just dumb for bringing it up.

Sorry to ramble on. It just seemed to me that your comments showed a distinct misunderstanding of the reading/writing process.

The book sounds interesting!
Gilbert McInnis / December 8, 2007 at 10:50 am
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My following comments are in reaction to Ms. Murphy winning the Governor General’s award for best dramatic writing of 2007. First off, I am very happy that Ms. Murphy won Canada’s most prestigious award for her dramatic work. Congratulations! Yet, I am baffled by the Canadian artistic scene because my play, which is the first work to deal with the Montreal massacre, was wrote almost 15 years ago and was published by Samizdat, Quebec City, 2004. See review at: http://www.mun.ca/univrel/gazette/2003-2004/apr8/bookmarks3.html. While a few bookstores have bravely decided to distribute my play, the mainline bookstores have refused. Maybe it’s because I am not a female. To be quite honest, I feel like James Joyce after he found out that Thornton Wilder had taken his Finnegan’s Wake and by adapting Joyce’s story won a Pulitzer Prize for The Skin of Our Teeth. Joyce had been totally raped of his ideas and ignored. Yet, history has proven Joyce the better writer.
Gilbert McInnis
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