Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The saddest book I've ever read

Alphonse leaned in and kissed me. It was a huge kiss that covered my whole mouth. I didn't know that kissing could make you feel so afraid. I closed my mouth very tight while he kissed me. It felt as if I was suffocating, as if her were holding my head down in the bathtub under water. I thought about that old wives' tale about how cats get on top of you and then swallow your breath. They must creep up while you are sleeping and kiss you passionately.

Although I had kissed a lot of other people, that kiss was really my fist. For instance, I had friend named Clare who begged me and begged me to kiss her toe. I'd done it, but that hadn't been my first kiss. A boy named Daniel and I had blindfolded ourselves with sweaters and had tried to kiss. I'd accidentally kissed him on the nose, but that hadn't been my first kiss. I had kissed a boy after losing a coin toss, and even though I had wanted that to be my first kiss, it hadn't been really. The real first kiss is the one that tells you what it feels like to be an adult and doesn't let you be a child anymore. The first kiss is the one that you suffer the consequences of. It was as if I had playing Russian roulette and finally got the cylinder with the bullet in it.
Goddamit, yes, you suffer its consequences, but you know it's not supposed to feel like that. She's only twelve!

Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O'Neill, is the saddest book I've ever read. It bears the unique distinction of being a book I almost didn't finish reading (and I finish almost every book I start), not because it wasn't compelling, but because it was almost too impossibly sad to bear, and I almost couldn't stand to know Baby's fate.

So, coming-of-age story blah blah heroin-addict father blah foster home and juvenile detention blah Montreal's seedy underbelly blah blah blah. What no synopsis quite captures is O'Neill's voice. It's naïve and so very not naïve at the same time.

I've managed to put off writing about this book, because life. Also, as I previously mentioned, my daughter's almost the age of the novel's narrator, and that makes it hard, cuz it's a bittersweet age — a little emotionally treacherous — and it's not even like we're anywhere close to living on the street and we her parents aren't junkies or anything even if sometimes we're not as responsible as we should be the way suburbanites are, and I don't see her to be growing up to be that kind of girl. But conscience niggles always, that I should do right by her, be better than I am.

This book is an accusation, also, of our foster care system, our mental health care system, juvenile detention care, how we sideline our impoverished. That is, I'm not saying the novel is a social commentary; but it's accusing me personally in my apathy for having so little social conscience.

I walk through some of Baby's places. I used to be charmed by carré Saint-Louis on my first visits to Montreal. Last week, driving somewhere, stopped at a light alongside the square, I locked the doors.

This novel has terrific sentences. Like, "The street was filled with pages of misspelled words that had fallen out of binders along with the autumn leaves." And, "When two people are thinking the same thing, it sends a charge through your whole body. My veins were telephone lines with people laughing and screaming through them." And, "She was one of those blonde girls who looked as if they'd just been rained on."

Despite her surroundings, Baby has the unflinching gaze of a child — accepting and in awe. Her days are filled with a kind of beauty most people overlook.

It's unsentimental and honest, and that makes it hard. (Like raising a daughter in the city.) Worth every step.

Quill & Quire
Reading Matters

When she spoke, her breath smelled like cigarettes and dead things. There was something inhuman about her, suddenly, as if when she opened her mouth and tipped it backward you would see mechanical inner workings, like a dumb weight instead of a tonsil. If she coughed and you looked in her Kleenex, you would see nails and screws. That's probably why she was missing a finger. She had probably just fallen and it had broken off. I felt so lonely all of a sudden, as if I were the only human left in the world.

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