Y is a debut novel by Canadian author Majorie Celona, who was previously a writing fellow at Colgate University and was writer in residence at Hawthornden Castle, near Edinburgh. She has published short stories in The Best American Non-required Reading, Harvard Review and Crazyhorse, amongst other collections.
The novel is set on Vancouver Island, where Celona grew up. Although the Island is famous for its rugged natural beauty, Celona focuses on its urban decay, closely observed through the eyes of her protagonist, a child who was abandoned by her mother, shortly after birth,on the doorstep of the YMCA in Victoria, the Island’s capital, Celona poignantly describes how the child is passed from one set of foster parents to another until she reaches the age of five, her sense of self already damaged by uncertainty and, in some instances, ill-treatment. The story is told in the first person by the little girl, who comes to be known, after several name changes, as Shannon. Her narration is filled with incomprehension, registering each rejection with an intensity of feeling that she cannot properly articulate. The central question arises time and again: who is her mother and why did she abandon her?
This question is answered in a series of recursive alternate chapters, where Celona gradually reveals the disturbing circumstances of Shannon’s abandonment. The only answers Shannon can find are extrapolations of her internalised self-hatred. She blames herself, her ”ugliness”. To Shannon, her singular appearance – a puff of white-blonde hair, a small squat stature with shoulders too broad for her frame and an eye defect – provides evidence that she is unacceptable. She sees life through a filter of ugliness. Her bleak descriptions of street life read like a Tom Waits lyric, but drained of irony or nostalgia. Smells, rubbish in the streets, images of homeless people, beggars; these sensations are the focus of Shannon’s attention. It is as if she can only identify with loss, detachment, damaged things and people:
Granville Street was packed with people. All with that wet carpet smell. The closer I got to Hastings, the more people there were. I pushed them off when they stumbled into me. I stopped and bummed a smoke off a couple of tourists who were staring dumbly at a man sitting on a wooden pallet in the doorway of a twenty-four hour café, a river of piss streaming out under his foot.
Shannon seems to feel acutely the old adage, ‘there but for the grace of God…’
Despite such darkness, the narrative does also have lighter moments. There are wonderfully funny descriptions of toys, rituals and games she plays with her step sister. Here she is on her tenth birthday, relating one of her gifts, a French knitting kit:
French knitting sounds like something I should do. It’s solitary, something for crazy people, weird people, people with too much time on their hands…
French knitting is simple to learn: just follow the instructions and wrap brightly. Coloured yarn around the metal guides crowning Madame Knitting Guide’s head.
WARNING – CHOKING HAZARD
Not for Children under 3 yrs.
What instructions? Madame Knitting Guide? Are they kidding?
Already, her responses to children’s toys are tinged with a premature adult cynicism. Celona tracks Shannon’s transition from bewildered child to rebellious adopted teenager. But gradually, as Shannon gains a greater sense of security from her adoptive family, her emotional wounds begin to heal and she is able to take more control of her own future.
As Shannon’s narrative gains stability, the narrative of Yula, her mother, unfolds in a series of cataclysmic events within her family, reaching the intense pitch that Celona has built with unerring restraint, holding back the denouement until its impact can be felt at its keenest by the reader.
Y is an unusual bildungsroman, told with compassion and a deep intuition of broken childhood and the possibility of redemption.