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.
“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.