Y, by Marjorie Celona

Purchased from Indigo.ca

The bundled-up newborn who will grow up to be Shannon is left by her mother at the front doors of the Y in Victoria, B.C., in the pre-dawn hours when it is certain she will be found. In fact, Vaughn, an instructor waiting for the Y to open, observes the whole episode:

Now, in the parking lot, he is hidden behind the glare from the rising sun in the passenger-side window of his van. He sees my mother kiss my cheek — a furtive peck like a frightened bird — then walk quickly down the ramp to the entrance, put me in front of the glass doors, and dart away. She doesn’t look back, not even once, and the man watches her turn the corner into Quadra Street, her strides fast and light now that her arms are empty. She disappears into the cemetery behind the cathedral. It is August 28th, at five-fifteen a.m. My mother is dead to me, all at once.

The story of Shannon’s abandonment (actually, the first name she gets in the hospital is Lily and that will change several times before she becomes Shannon) takes up the first 10 pages of Marjorie Celona’s debut novel but, for the reader, it is an accurate harbinger of what is to come. Y may be (and is) a novel and the central character is always present — but, as is often the case with a first novelist, it is structured to read just as much like a collection of linked short stories.

The “abandoned baby” motif is a convenient device for that approach. Lily will go through a number of foster homes and names before she turns five. Each one gives author Celona a chance to explore a new set of adults and their circumstances as well as chronicle the development of her heroine — and each reads like a fairly well-done short story. Not only that, there is the back story of how Shannon came to be conceived and abandoned, supplying another set of circumstances and characters for another set of vignetteish short stories.

Y does acquire more continuing form on Shannon’s fifth birthday when she is adopted by Miranda (“a cinnamon-colored woman who works as a Molly Maid and was once married to a man named Dell”). Miranda has a daughter, Lydia-Rose, of about the same age and the biggest section of the book will feature these three as Shannon grows into adolesence.

There are rules here: no staring, no chewing with my mouth open, no sugar before bed, no wasting food, no talking back. I can handle most of it, but I can’t stop staring. I want to stare at Miranda forever. I am fascinated with her. She wears her hair in a tight bun at the top of her head and has a bright face, as if the moon itself walked into the room. After work, she pads around the townhouse in Chinese slippers and a plaid housecoat. She makes us lentil soup, then slides an ice cube into each of our bowls until it cools.

I’ll admit that the first half of Y frequently was reminding me of another popular debut novel recently reviewed here, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Both feature a short-story like approach with similar traits: each episode introduces tension with an “evil” character but somehow an “angel” is always on hand to tidily resolve it. In both novels, the sentimentality starts early and is layered on all too thickly — it is a credit to both authors that every time I was starting to say “enough is enough” they managed to surprise me with adept-enough writing that I kept on going.

And when Y reaches the halfway point, with Shannon now in her teens, Celona finally has a character who is capable of carrying the book. The structure of the incidents stays the same, but Shannon now has enough grit that it was impossible not to admire her and appreciate her growth. It is hard to illustrate, but here is an example after she has been returned to Victoria by police from her first runaway excursion to Vancouver (complete with exposure to drugs and possible sexual exploitation) and begun her “new” life with a goal of searching for her real parents:

I walk into Mac’s and get a hot chocolate, which is syrupy and gross, so I give it to a man playing the trumpet outside and we talk for a while. I like him. He’s always around, playing that crappy old trumpet. He has curly hair, lots of it, piled on his head like a wig, but today he’s wearing an orange toque. He tells me his name is Mickey.

“Mickey,” I say. “Got a cigarette?”

He looks at me like I’m nuts. The guys around here have not seen this new side of me. He rolls me one, lights it with a dog-eared pack of matches, takes a big long puff and hands it to me.

“Tastes weird.”

“Might be some hash mixed in there,” he says and winks. He’s got watery eyes and a deeply lined face and he’s short, five-four max. I like short people, short men. So fine, I’ll smoke this cigarette. I’ll smoke this hash. We lean up against the big glass window of Mac’s, and he picks up his trumpet and blows into it some more.

Almost-adult Shannon is an interesting character — she indulges in some outrageous escapades that are too long to capture in an excerpt and too good to spoil with a description. It still didn’t make for a great novel, but it was fun to go along with the development of an interesting character — Shannon’s no Holden Caulfield, but they share some similar traits.

Alas, Y is a novel and the author has to resolve all this. What follows is a spoiler but it is so obvious I don’t think revealing it will damage the book for anybody: she finds her birth mother and father. This was both so predictable and so sentimental that I was screaming “no, no, no” — again, it is to the author’s credit that I not only kept on reading, I had tears in my eyes during some of the final pages of the book. Sometimes good writing and character portrayal can overcome abysmal plot. :-)

Y obviously impressed publisher Hamish Hamilton and is getting the kind of marketing push that has become less frequent for first novels — three pages of blurbs at the start of the novel include endorsements from Colum McCann, Kim Echlin and a stable of established Canadian authors. And just as Harold Fry is experiencing substantial commercial success, I’d expect a fair number of Canadian book clubs will be taking this on in the 2012-13 season.

I also am not totally surprised that the Giller jury included it on the longlist — it is well-written and juror Roddy Doyle in particular has shown a taste for observant children as central characters (they create the opening for broader observations — Victoria in this book, Ireland in his Paddy Clarke). Still, for this reader at least, Y is more of a promise of what is to come than a complete success — I read it in one day, quite enjoyed it, but feel no desire to return for a second read to see what I missed. I will be looking for Celona’s second book, however; this book is a good start and she has a talent that I am sure will grow.

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13 Responses to “Y, by Marjorie Celona”

  1. lascosas Says:

    I fly to San Francisco Thursday and supposedly have 8 Giller books awaiting me. Reading your reviews, and the 3 Kindled Gillers I’ve read, can’t say I’m awaiting the 8 with the same enthusiasm I’d hoped for when I “signed up” to read the Giller list. Oh well. Maybe there are hidden gems.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    lascosas: I am halfway through and have to say that so far the 2012 longlist is much more mainstream than I am used to from previous years. At one end of the spectrum, I haven’t read anything close to experimental or modernist — and it doesn’t look from scanning those left to go that there is one on my upcoming list. At the other end, there also hasn’t been anything grand, historical or frontier — whatever label you like to use for the so-called “big” book.

    I have been used to examples from both those groups, so I am finding this year’s reading experience a little less challenging than I have come to expect. Either publishers have become more risk-averse than I thought (because I can’t think of novels that fit those categories which are missing, although there are a couple of late releases that I haven’t got to yet) or this is a jury that tends to prefer that kind of book.

    And having said that, I’d like to underline that the reading experience has not been bad — just that it has not yet been as exciting as the Giller normally has been for me.

  3. dovegreyreaderD Says:

    I like the premise of this one Kevin so have lightly read your review because I feel sure I will read it. I see so many children in the early stages of that process of abandonment, fostering and adoption, and then a big gap before I see more who are becoming parents for themselves, so I am intrigued about those ‘missing years’ (for me) and where an author may take them. I will. Be on the look out for this one. Incidentally someone brought Annabel along to our Endsleigh Salon last week and we had a great discussion about it, does the child’s voice match up to the standard of Kathleen Winter’s Wayne I wonder?? If an author nails it I am usually sufficiently impressed to forgive a great deal else.

  4. David Says:

    As I mentioned over on the forum, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Y’ and found it quite compelling, and though I didn’t get through it in one day as you did, Kevin, I did read the last 160 pages in one evening. Although it didn’t move me to tears (I think only two books have ever done that!) it was one with which I became quite emotionally engaged and I cared about the characters. I think Celona is particularly adept at voices – the way Shannon’s voice subtly matures and alters throughout the book (especially in her sarcastic and judgemental teenage years) is very well done, and the letter from her father, which forms one chapter, has its own unique voice and slightly put me in mind of Willy Vlautin’s writing.

    But, I did find Celona strayed uncomfortably close to sentimental TV Movie territory occasionally and only just avoided mawkishness towards the end (the petting zoo was a bit much). Though I don’t think I would have wanted a different ending (and indeed without it Shannon wouldn’t have been able to tell a lot of her or Yula’s story, which presumably she learns from her mother and grandfather) it felt too tidy. And I thought the fact that nearly everyone Shannon encounters is kind and the right person at the right time to assist her in her progress was a bit too convenient. But largely the author won me over and like you I think it shows a great deal of promise. I’ll certainly look forward to whatever Celona writes next.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Again, we have a very similar response. One reason why I am looking forward to Celona’s next book is that most of the concerns I had with this one (“tidiness” would be a good one-word summary) were ones that showed her lack of experience. As your comments about the effective way she can alter voices illustrates, the novel shows that she already has many of the more subtle tools that a good writer needs.

    Perhaps the best test of Y will be how it settles over the next couple of months. I am sometimes guilty of letting annoyances that I call sentimentality get in my way as I am reading a book — and find that they fade later while the stronger impressions remain. Then again, sometimes the whole book fades.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: I would say Shannon’s voice is even stronger than Annabel’s (although Kathleen Winter’s plot was more tightly put together for me). I won’t try to anticipate your response given that you spend so much time working with real-life versions of this story. As stay tuned for The Imposter Bride — I just started it yesterday but so far it does focus on another “abandoned” child, this one in quite a different set of circumstances.

  7. sshaver Says:

    Good writing can overcome anything. No kryptonite can touch it.

  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Did Vaughan tell her that he saw Shannon’s “mother kiss [her] cheek — a furtive peck like a frightened bird”? It seems an unusually specific detail if he told her years later when she’d grown, but otherwise where does the observation come from?

    Perhaps I’m being picky.

    It sounds like it’ll be a hit with book clubs Kevin, but you’ve done me that great service one blogger does another of giving me enough information to let me know this is one I can pass on (I think I saw you make that comment to someone else recently, it really is very true).

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Well, perhaps you are being a bit picky — of course, it is narrator Shannon’s memory of what she thinks happened. In the author’s defence, that exercise in imagination is a necessary trait of abandoned child books.

    And yes, I don’t think this is a book for you. That doesn’t mean it is not entirely acceptable to readers with other tastes (and you remember correctly that I recently made that comment about bloggers correctly warning me off books ).

  10. Brett Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thank you for the very thought and, in my opinion, accurate review. While I enjoyed this Celona’s writing inmensely (I was sent a copy of the book by her publisher), I, too, felt that there was something a little too “pat” about the ending. However, like you, this did not stop me from reading. I can only hope that we will be hearing more from this writer. In the meantime, try “The Panopticon” by Jenni Fagan (a first time novelist herself) if you want a more harrowing account of a similar story. I’m not sure why this book hasn’t received more attention. Perhaps in her native Scotland it has. For me, “The Panopticon” and I.J. Kay’s “Mountains of the Moon” are by far the best books I’ve read this year, despite what the Booker judges may feel.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Brett: Thanks for the thoughts and the pointers. I’m afraid this year’s Giller jury has already stretched my tolerance for abandoned child/damaged young women novels to the limit — but other visitors here might find it worthwhile to pursue your recommendations.

  12. kimbofo Says:

    Did you see that this book has been named on the Waterstone’s 11 for 2013??

    She was also at at fiction evening hosted by Faber last night to unveil their top picks for the year ahead to press/booksellers etc. I was astonished at how young she was! Anyway, now have a hardcover edition to get stuck into at some point…

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Kim: I did not see that Y had made the Waterstone list. Celona was on a panel that Mrs. KfC moderated at the Calgary writers’ festival and she was very impressed as well. Given the very positive response from the publishing industry to this debut novel, I can’t help but wonder if Celona isn’t an illustration of the new phenomenon that requires debut authors to have the skills and looks to be very “event” presentable as part of the overall marketing of the book. Alex Ohlin, another Giller finalist, is another who fits the model — although the vicious review she got in the NY Times probably overtook any other marketing aspect (and in the finall analysis also probably sold more books).

      As for Y, I remember the general thrust of the book and a few of the scenes but would have to say that it hasn’t grown in memory since I read it.

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