Abandoned on the steps of a YMCA as a baby, the narrator of Marjorie Celona’s debut novel, Y, is often met by ridicule or pity. But as Shannon points out, Superman was a foundling, too. Comics, movies, and books are filled with orphans whose search for identity leads them to discover some greater destiny. But Y is grounded firmly in reality, showing that while such quests are necessary and important, their impact is far more complex.
Set on Celona’s native Vancouver Island, Y alternates between telling Shannon’s story and revealing the events that led her mother, Yula, to abandon her. It’s filled with glimpses of the road not taken. Shannon is first adopted by a couple that want to teach her dance and a skilled trade, and she imagines how she might have become a ballerina with a pipe-fitting business if relationship trouble and a drug addiction hadn’t moved her on. A particularly beautiful promise made when Yula becomes pregnant tragically never comes to fruition, which sets her on the path to the book’s first pages. Yet Celona’s work isn’t about regret, it’s about acceptance of the past that shapes a person.
While much more time passes between Shannon’s chapters, Yula’s story is often more compelling. The end is predetermined, but Celona spoons out sparse details that keep the path there from being predictable. It helps that Yula’s chapters are shorter than Shannon’s, which are packed with beautiful descriptions that can feel like padding, given Celona’s tendency to string comparisons together, like when she describes a man’s terrible penmanship by writing, “It looks like someone was shaking him while he wrote it; it looks like there was an earthquake going on. It looks like he wrote it on his knee while being jostled side to side on a city bus.”
Celona skillfully avoids the pitfalls of well-trod subject matter. Shannon is an inherently sympathetic character, but she’s also deeply flawed, regularly acting out in ways that test the patience of her adopted mother, Miranda. Her story has some terrible hardship, including early abuse and an unidentified birth defect that leaves her blind in one eye, but Celona avoids using these things as a crutch, and shows that the day-to-day experiences of navigating school and home are perhaps the greatest challenges for a confused teen. Many of the characters, from Miranda’s jealous biological daughter to Shannon’s convict father, could simply be antagonists, but Celona shows enough nuance in their motivations and actions to let them be heroes and villains at the same time. Y deals with clichés like finding home and being both special and mundane, but Y manages to still offer a fresh perspective on the quest for self-discovery.