A stranger who’s read the nation’s coming-of-age fiction but never stepped foot in Canada could easily be pushed to exclaim, “What the hell happened there?” If bygone Anne of Avonlea’s biggest adolescent mishap involved dyed green hair, current coming-of-age stories often anatomize trauma. And there’s plenty to go around, whether it’s rooted in alienation, systemic racism, sizeism, transphobia, homophobia, violence, or addiction, to name but a few.
In that new normal, Nadia Bozak’s Thirteen Shells might come across as mild-mannered, even old-fashioned. Shell is a protagonist who ages 13 years across 13 stories, over the course of which she navigates her artistic parents’ relatively subdued divorce. Although divorce impacts families with greater frequency than teenage heroin use or fatal alienation, as a cultural narrative it’s such a commonplace that anchoring a Bildungsroman to a run-of-the-mill example is strategically risky. Shell’s developmental arc could seem resoundingly average, like a reboot of The Wonder Years set in an Ontario cereal manufacturing hub between 1977 and 1990.
Bozak writes too well to reduce her narrative to formulaic TV tropes. Still, the pre-teen snapshots represented by about half the stories are perhaps too subtle. Though richly detailed, the gossamer anecdotes in them exhibit little staying power.
These earlier stories, including “Greener Grass,” “Fiddleheads,” and “Tooth Fairy,” provide glimpses of a family that’s only semi-functional and hint at the split to come (Dad sleeping on the couch, Mom taking long solitary walks). The events in them are lifelike insofar as the episodes are hardly earth-shattering – Shell and her Dad harvest spring greens to sell to restaurants; Shell hides her father’s dentures in a misguided attempt to keep the family intact. Adroit at capturing late ’70s ephemera and one low-income hippie family’s attempt at suburban homesteading, the stories record a contentedness undercut by foreboding.
“Frozen Fish,” the seventh entry in the book, begins: “The summer before Dad and Mum get separated, Dad digs Shell a fish pond for her eleventh birthday.” The story marks a welcome transition point. Infused with adolescent acting out, experimentation, and narcissistic angst, the second half of Bozak’s collection benefits from Shell’s growing awareness and her trials in the world beyond home.
There’s also a grittiness and emotional dynamism in these later tales. In “Hole in the Wall,” Shell, now in junior high, takes a bus trip to Toronto to visit her father. His attempts at conjuring fun can’t disguise how impoverished he’s become. In “Jesse,” Shell is 15 and routinely lying to her harried mother. “Left Luggage” and “New Roof,” centred on a vacation to Florida and the sale of the decaying family house, are terrific vignettes that relate the awkwardness, tension, and intimacy between daughter and mother. They suggest a blood bond that’s permanent, but never easy.