Winsome debut novel about a precocious girl’s peripatetic life.
From the perspective of 12-year-old narrator Baby, she and her father, Jules, live a glamorous life in Montreal’s red-light district. Only 15 years older than Baby, Jules conscripts her in his colorful, often fruitless schemes to make a quick buck. Baby knows that Jules is a heroin addict, but when he is high, his love for her is grandly theatrical, their grinding poverty a colorful adventure. But when Jules begins rehab, Baby enters the foster-care system. Deprived of the excitement that took the sting out of her marginal daily existence, Baby clams up, becoming a faithful, if mostly despondent, observer of the small rituals that hold her new families together. Just as she acclimates herself to new companions, she is uprooted, until finally she lands on the doorstep of her newly sober father. Jules, now grimly vigilant about worldly corruption, winds up driving Baby away. She moves in with a pimp and begins turning tricks to support her own heroin habit. After a few wretched months, she finds Jules again, and they plot a new beginning together. The story is a strange mix of heavy plotting and grotesque characters—as if the cast of an Elmore Leonard novel had wandered into a tale by Dickens—but Baby’s voice holds it all together. Baby is the real triumph here; Jules’s charm is utterly believable, but Baby’s yearning for him, even for his cruelties, aches to the bone. Baby believes she is guided by reason and conviction, but O’Neill shows us that Baby is all emotion and instinct. Moving from foster home to foster home, Baby becomes adept at thinking logically and remembering details. This translates into an unselfconscious gift for breathtaking metaphors, perhaps the most mesmerizing aspect of this author’s prose.
An oddly appealing trip down and then out.