Y is a novel about asking “Why?” After being abandoned on the doorstep of the YMCA, Shannon grows up in foster homes on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. After some unfortunate placements --- one with a childless couple who expects a three-year-old to be still --- she is placed with Miranda, a single mother with a daughter named Lydia-Rose, who is Shannon’s age. Shannon has trouble in school. “I’m the shortest person in grade one and probably the weirdest looking person, too. My mom or dad must have had really curly hair because I’ve got white-blond curls so tight they could hold a pop can. My bum eye is off to the side, sleeping in the corner by my temple, and people don’t know to look when they’re talking to me.”
Shannon loves Miranda, the family dog Winkie, and even Lydia-Rose, although she doesn’t love some of the rules in the house or Lydia-Rose’s occasional tormenting. Still, she can’t help wondering who her mother was and why she abandoned her. The reader is finding out, though, because alternating chapters present Yula’s story, fully imagined in Shannon’s voice. Yula is the teenage mother of a four-year-old named Eugene, the daughter herself of a troubled marriage, who is living in a cabin on her father’s property in the mountains and meeting the ex-con who becomes Shannon’s father.
"The ending is perfectly understated and satisfying. Kudos to Marjorie Celona for this fresh telling of an old, sad story."
“When Harrison comes home, he lifts my small mother into his arms and carries her around the cabin, telling Eugene that his mother can fly. In these moments Yula is always slightly outside of herself. She knows it cannot last --- everything sours, spoils, eventually. She tries to enjoy it --- being carried through the air --- but something stops her. The way some of her hair has caught on Harrison’s buttons, the way his hands grasp her underarms too tightly. There is always some small amount of pain, of wanting it to be over.”
As the book progresses, we expect these two threads to converge, that Shannon will someday discover Yula. In the meantime, there is Shannon’s adolescence and Yula’s tale of loss, both of which are fairly harrowing. For Shannon, there are bus rides, consignment clothes, running away, getting high, and friendships with older guys who play trumpet outside the convenience store. Shannon is secretive about her possession of a newspaper article concerning her abandonment and her trips to the YMCA to find Vaughn, the man who found her there. Throughout, the writing is evocative and rhythmic, holding our attention, taking us into the mean streets of Vancouver BC and the mean streets of a young girl’s confused, brave mind. “The street smelled like piss, and I marched forward, one foot in front of the other, trying to walk with purpose. Trying not to look scared. I could do this. I was as much a freak as anyone else.”
There are perhaps too many memoirs and novels about painful childhoods, but I wouldn’t put Y in this category. Shannon is not sentimental but is dogged and fair. She eventually comes to recognize all the good in her life --- Miranda, Vaughn, even Lydia-Rose --- while not shying away from the bad. The ending is perfectly understated and satisfying. Kudos to Marjorie Celona for this fresh telling of an old, sad story.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 18, 2013