In Y, her stunning debut novel, Marjorie Celona has created a world so rich and so full that every line merely seems to confirm something that has already happened.
In saying so, I don’t mean to imply that her prose is predictable, but rather that it has an inevitable or ineluctable quality, a cohesion twinned with the unexpected and amazing. This is a novel that demands willing suspension of disbelief at points. But the challenge to the reader is richly rewarded.
For example, here is a whole novel in the shape of a paragraph: “Helene lives alone in an apartment on Esquimalt Road with a view of the ocean. She looks at my tiny face and imagines what her life would be like if she took me home and became my mother. She rearranges her apartment in her mind, puts a bassinet in the small space between her double bed and dresser, replaces one of the foldout chairs at her kitchen table with a high chair. She bakes a Dutch apple pie for me while I watch; all the time she is singing. But Helene meets a man a few weeks later, and her thoughts overflow. She cannot make space for both of us in her mind. She marries the man. They move to Seattle.”
With a few deft strokes, Celona places Helene (who is basically background) at the centre of a narrative with its own velocity even as we are directed elsewhere as readers and follow the sometimes sad and sometimes comic picaresque tale of a modern-day foundling raised in foster care on Vancouver Island.
Marjorie Celona herself was born on Vancouver Island and studied at University of Victoria before going on to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She currently lives in Cincinnati. Y the novel began life as a short story and was anthologized in editions of both Best Canadian Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading.
“My life begins at the Y.” So we are introduced to the infant Shannon, our all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. We also meet Vaughn, who witnesses her abandonment, and her mother Yula, who kisses her once and walks off without looking back. As Shannon moves from one foster home to another, always questioning who she is and where she came from, we know that we will meet Vaughn and Yula again.
Before Shannon as character meets her mother for the second time, Shannon as narrator takes us through the tangled history leading to the dark night of the soul that culminated in Yula’s early-morning decision to leave her baby on the front steps of the Y. Of all the characters in the novel, Shannon is the most difficult to see clearly. She is a shape-shifter, always looking outward, always obsessively describing the appearance of others. But in this novel, absent characters are often the most present.
When Shannon, now a teenager, again meets Vaughn, he turns out to be the sort who holds forth on things: “‘When you’re in the thick of your life, Shannon,’ Vaughn says suddenly, ‘it feels like a mess – one surprise after the next. But later, when you look back on things, it seems like a plot. One thing leads to another. Et cetera. You start to see the causal relationships between things. … But you know, I suppose if you have enough time on your hands, you can make connections about anything.’”
Y could have been called The Fork in the Road. It’s an absolutely awful title, but it is finally what the story is about – that moment when life can go one way or the other. This takes us back to the actual title and the explanation in the novel’s brief prologue: “That perfect letter. The wishbone, fork in the road, empty wineglass.”
This is a novel about connections and about relationships, causal and otherwise. Despite the picaresque nature of the plot, Shannon shakes off her status as a picaro by the novel’s end. It is not surprising that she is changed by the events of her life and their recounting. The real joy is that the reader may be as well.
Sara O’Leary is at work on a novel titled The Ghost in the House.
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