Quill and Quire


« Back to
Book Reviews


by Marjorie Celona

Victoria-born writer Marjorie Celona (who now lives in Cincinnati) chose Vancouver Island as the setting for her buzzy debut novel, the coming-of-age story of Shannon, a young misfit with a curly blond halo, a lazy left eye, and a self-deprecating sense of humour. Abandoned at birth by her mother, Yula, Shannon was dropped in front of a Victoria YMCA with only a grey sweatshirt and a Swiss army knife as clues to her identity.

The title is a play on words: the implied question provides the novel its narrative impetus. Why would Yula abandon her baby? And why did Vaughn, the perceptive, gym-obsessed redhead who saw her do it, mislead the police afterward? The novel gradually answers these questions, but raises new, more universal ones: Who am I? Where do I belong? What makes a family?

The action is divided into two alternating narratives. One follows Shannon’s life from infancy to her 17th birthday, while the other is Yula’s story, focusing on the five days preceding Shannon’s birth, and culminating with the tragic mistake that drove Yula to make her desperate decision.

Though Yula is only 18 when she gets pregnant with Shannon, she is already saddled with huge responsibilities, simultaneously taking care of her curious three-year-old son, Eugene (Shannon’s half-brother), her recently widowed, suicidal father, Quinn, and her troubled boyfriend, Harrison (Shannon’s birth father). Celona’s depictions of Yula’s family home on the outskirts of Victoria’s Goldstream Provincial Park are vivid and beautiful. Yula and Quinn live “at the edge of reality, beholden to no one, isolated and strange.” The author employs a deft hand in touching on the marriage of Yula’s mother and father, and paints a nuanced portrait of her flawed but loving family. There’s a changeable mixture of playful lightness and dark carelessness in Yula’s relationship with Harrison that foreshadows disaster.

Shannon, for her part, has been given a very rough start to life, and must survive a series of negligent and abusive foster parents (even the well-meaning ones can’t seem to get it together) before arriving, on her fifth birthday, at the safe and loving home of her adoptive mother, Miranda. A “cinnamon-coloured” woman who works as a Molly Maid, Miranda  shares a tiny townhouse with her tall, thin daughter, Lydia-Rose – a “classic beauty” just slightly older than Shannon – as well as a dog and three cats. When Shannon first arrives, the attention she receives makes Lydia-Rose jealous; on the other hand, Shannon is painfully aware of her second-class status as the adopted child. It is only after years of living together that Shannon is able to accept Miranda and Lydia-Rose as her authentic family.

The tone of the chapters dealing with Shannon’s life is very different from the more traditional narrative style employed in Yula’s sections. Shannon’s first-person narration takes some getting used to – it is simple to the point of sometimes sounding immature (which is understandable for a troubled child and adolescent), and comes in fast-paced bursts. As a child, Shannon relies heavily on sensory impressions and emotions, and augments them with information gathered later from other people. As she gets older, she develops a more judgmental tone, often dwelling on superficial details like the minutiae of people’s physical appearances (also appropriate fixations for a teenager). 

One of the strongest aspects of the novel is its exploration of how memory works, and how people misremember or block traumatic events as a form of self-protection. Shannon likens most of her memories to cards neatly catalogued in drawers and easy to access, but some especially painful ones are described as being blacked out with marker or even encased in a brick wall. That’s where she has consigned her memories of Julian, an abusive former foster parent.

Shannon is a troubled, and troubling, protagonist: angry, restless, and prone to self-destruction. She’s protective of her secrets, yet proves to be an agile spy when it comes to ferreting out those of others. She runs away to Vancouver, but once there has the good sense to extricate herself from a potentially dangerous situation. She remains a bit of a blank slate until the end of the book, but her friendship with Vaughn provides her with hope.

Though the trajectory of Shannon’s life story is upward and Yula’s is downward, Celona has nevertheless infused Yula’s more deliberately paced passages with enough depth and emotion to leave the reader invested in her. When the two stories finally meet, the novel becomes a real tear-jerker. Yula’s story is enthralling – arguably more so than Shannon’s – which makes it hard to let go of as Celona summarily skips over the 17 years in Yula’s life after she abandoned Shannon.

In the final analysis, Y is an uneven novel about the interplay of chance and choice in our lives. We are born in a certain place, to certain people, but the choices we make later in life are our own.


Reviewer: Sarah Greene

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Canada


Price: $30

Page Count: 368 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-0-67006-637-7

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 2012-7

Categories: Fiction: Novels