Y by Marjorie Celona

A powerful and compelling read for me. A search for a past by a child given up at birth told in the child’s voice and then the mother’s story, much of it from the perspective of the child. A fascinating cinematic cast of characters, Shannon; Harrison Church, Shannon’s father; Eugene, her brother; Yula, her mother; Quinn, Yula’s father; several sets of foster parents; Miranda, the mother after Shannon turns five; Vaughn who saw Yula abandon Shannon; Lydia-Rose, Miranda’s birth daughter; and an array of minor characters such as Edwin and his brother(junk dealers), Chloe the receptionist at the YMCA, Winkie the dog and Luella, a friend of Yula’s mother Jo. Quill & Quire says the novel is “uneven” and The Vancouver Observer says it is “unpleasant to read”. I never for a minute found it anything but compelling. It made the Giller longlist as well as the Maclean’s magazine’s list of bestsellers: no small accomplishment for a first novel.

The setting is Vancouver Island and the protagonist was abandoned there in front of the main Y by M. Celonadoors of the Victoria YWCA. She was wrapped up in an old grey hooded sweatshirt and the only possession with her was a Swiss army knife. After passing through the hands of a number of foster parents,at age five she comes to live with Miranda who works for Molly Maid and has another daughter, Lydia-Rose who is a little older than Shannon and a “classic beauty” whereas Shannon has a head of tight curls, a lazy left eye and a sarcastic tongue which gets her in trouble constantly.

Before the story begins we are given this information about the letter Y:

“That perfect letter. The wishbone, fork in the road, empty wineglass. The question we ask over and over. Why? Me with my arms outstretched, feet in first position. The chromosome half of us don’t have. Second to last in the alphabet: almost there. Coupled with an L, let’s make an adverb. A modest X, legs closed. Y or N? Yes, of course. Upside-down peace sign. Little bird tracks in the sand.

Y, a Greek letter, joined the Latin alphabet after the Romans conquered Greece in the first century – a double agent: consonant and vowel. No one used adverbs before then, and no one was happy.”

Shannon is determined to find out why she was abandoned and who her mother was in order to make sense of her life. Her determination, and the story of her journey to an understanding of her parents and their lives, make  a wonderful read. I think it would be a good read for a young adult moving into adult titles as well.

I particularly like Colum McCann’s praise for Y: “I love ambition in a novel. I love humour, audacity, perseverance, craft. And I am deeply grateful when it gets exquisitely blended in a brand new voice. Marjorie Celona’s debut weaves the twin stories of a foster child’s search for home and the raw account of her mother’s decision to abandon her newborn. Y is an evocative look into what makes a family, and what makes a home, and how they are undeniably helixed together.” (McCann is the author of Let the Great World Spin)

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