Heather O’Neill set out her literary stall in her strong first novel Lullabies for Little Criminals in 2006.
Riverrun, hardback, £16.99
For all the culture and sophistication of her native Montreal, with its many universities, colleges and art galleries, O’Neill opted to look behind the bourgeois lifestyles and seek out an underbelly where heroin and prostitution are the stock in trade and children suffer in a sexually predatory world.
So when she sets her new novel in Montreal in the glamour of the 1920s ceding to the Depression it is perhaps unsurprising that once again the underbelly of the city is explored.
The story starts in an orphanage where cruelty is systemic. Two kids have the energy and imagination to find a way through the cruelties and find each other.
Rose, and a boy who comes to be called Pierrot, have theatrical skills that attract the eye of orphanage benefactors and this exposes them to a corrupt world of theatre and prostitution and the ravages of heroin.
For all the terrible stories of children and young people ravaged by sexual abuse and addiction the most striking thing about the novel is its tone rather than its content.
It has the jaunty style of a late 19th century melodrama or even a fairytale. Chapters get headings like, “In Which Pierrot is Mistaken for a Genius” and so on. The style is archly literary in that sense.
Even though the book is long and unhurried the accounts of sexual encounters are abrupt and jarring.
That quality is evident from the first page with the circumstances of Pierrot’s mother being made pregnant at the age of 12 by an adult cousin who pretends that he is carrying out a medical examination.
As he impregnates her he pulls a little red ribbon from a cake box and presents it with the declaration that she is indeed healthy.
The clip-along style of the storytelling makes the many incidents of sex between guardians and children or between old adults and young adolescents seem all the more shocking. The sexual depravity is unrelenting as Rose becomes involved in early explorations of the porn industry.
It is also a love story between the two orphans who meet at the orphanage and then long to return to each other after their forced separation. There is a poignant scene played out on Montreal’s main street where each is imagining the other.
Rose is at the east end of Saint Catherine Street, Pierrot is at the west end. Their imagined dialogues are intercut to seem like an actual conversation, which only serves to underline the gulf that exists between them at that point.
It hardly comes as a surprise when they encounter each other in later life as the entire story is predicated on this happening.
The tenderness of their love story does shine through the multiple depravities abounding in the novel.
However, the characters are hidebound to the literary strictures of the book’s stylings.
They live as literary creations and for all the encounters of flesh they remain peculiarly bloodless. From such an accomplished debut in Lullabies for Little Criminals this is a most disappointing outing.
Dialogue is heavily relied upon, although it often lacks credibility and at times when it needs to cut deeply it lands with a dull thud.
The story has a tendency to run like a breathless listing of one thing after another without the musicality to elevate it and make it become the greater piece of art it obviously longs to be.
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