Heather O'Neill dazzles with a first novel of extraordinary prescience and power, a subtly understated yet searingly effective story of a young life on the streets—and the strength, wits, and luck necessary for survival.
At thirteen, Baby vacillates between childhood comforts and adult temptation: still young enough to drag her dolls around in a vinyl suitcase yet old enough to know more than she should about urban cruelties. Motherless, she lives with her father, Jules, who takes better care of his heroin habit than he does of his daughter. Baby's gift is a genius for spinning stories and for cherishing the small crumbs of happiness that fall into her lap. But her blossoming beauty has captured the attention of a charismatic and dangerous local pimp who runs an army of sad, slavishly devoted girls—a volatile situation even the normally oblivious Jules cannot ignore. And when an escape disguised as betrayal threatens to crush Baby's spirit, she will ultimately realize that the power of salvation rests in her hands alone.
If you want to get a child to love you, then you should just go hide in the closet for three or four hours. They get down on their knees and pray for you to return. That child will turn you into God. Lonely children probably wrote the Bible.
We forget, as we get older, how vulnerable it feels to be a child. To not be in charge. Not responsible for where you live, what you eat, or where your money comes from. In fact, we tend to idealize those days, thinking wouldn’t it be wonderful to go back to the worry-free existence of a child? We forget that children have worries too, especially if they don’t have responsible adults in their lives.
This book also reminded me of lessons learned when I was old enough to go stay at friends’ houses: whatever you have grown up with is normal for you. Doesn’t matter how chaotic your own home is, you don’t realize it until you have a calmer home to compare it to (or vice versa). Your family’s regular foods will seem odd to others, your mom’s way of slicing a sandwich may even seem idiosyncratic to some. The “normal” routine may seem very exotic to those children who have no routine to speak of.
I was distinctly reminded of the memoir by Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle, where she and her siblings just accepted the way life was with their alcoholic father and dysfunctional mother. They learned early to take care of themselves, because their parents weren’t going to do it. And let’s face it, every family has their own dysfunctions—no matter how stable, there’s some weird thing that every family does that make it “unhappy in its own way.” (Thanks, Tolstoy).
Many lovely turns of phrase, lots of laugh-out-loud moments, plus that last sentence lifted my spirits with hope!