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Giller-nominated novel off to winning start with tale of belonging

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Whether or not she takes it home remains to be seen, but she's definitely off to a winning start. Now living in Cincinnati, Celona was born and raised on Vancouver Island.

The novel itself also begins and ends with the letter Y. Y is for the YMCA in Victoria, B.C., where Shannon's biological mother abandons her as a baby, swaddled in an old, grey sweatshirt, a Swiss Army knife tucked in the box beside her.

Y is also for Yula, her mother's name. And Y, or rather, "why" is for the question that Shannon asks herself over and over.

Weaving past and present together, Shannon tells her own story and the story of her parents before she was born. As a child, she goes through a series of foster parents, some well-meaning but incompetent, some abusive, before eventually being adopted at the age of five by Miranda, a no-nonsense but loving single mother who works for Molly Maid and has a daughter Shannon's age.

Far from comfortable in her own skin -- or her Sally Ann wardrobe, complete with suspenders -- Shannon struggles to fit in with her new family and is increasingly haunted by her mother's decision to give her up.

Was she too ugly, she wonders? Maybe the social worker at the Ministry of Child and Family Development was right: her mother was probably homeless, possibly a drug addict. As she tells Shannon, "Sometimes ... it's better not to know."

But Shannon is determined to learn the truth, however painful. As a teenager, she tracks down the one person who witnessed her being left outside the YMCA and shows up at his house unannounced. Though understandably surprised, Vaughn welcomes Shannon's questions and confesses having wondered what became of her. His friendship and offer to help gives Shannon the confidence to carry on with her quest.

Celona's clean, fluid prose makes Y a fast and enjoyable read, and her engaging portrayal of Shannon -- as a lost little girl, then as an angry, wise-ass teenager -- is both heartbreaking and hilarious.

Shannon leaps off the page like something out of a Victorian sideshow, but with a self-awareness and vulnerability that ultimately make her an endearing character. A self-described freak ("Short, stocky, frizzy blonde Afro, lazy eye ... hard to miss"), Shannon might easily have sprung from the mind of Charles Dickens.

It's not hard to imagine her in one of his stories, roaming the streets in search of herself and her destiny. Granted, these are the streets of Victoria, and briefly Vancouver, not London, England, but they are no less dreary.

And like Dickens, Celona shines a light on the people society has forgotten; the lonely, the hungry, the hopeless and unloved.

In some ways, Y is a modern telling of the classic orphan story perfected by Dickens. But more than that, it's about family, whatever shape it takes, and the need to belong.

 

Lindsay McKnight works in the arts in Winnipeg.

 

Y

By Marjorie Celona

Hamish Hamilton, 348 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J9

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