Y: A Novel
Celona’s tale of an abandoned infant has few light moments. Shannon, a product of foster care on Vancouver Island from infancy, forever wonders about her mother and why she was left at the doorstep of the YMCA. Only one man, a solitary witness to that event that fateful morning, saw the look on the young mother’s face as she left, a memory he keeps to himself over the years.
With a cloud of frizzy white-blonde hair and a lazy eye, Shannon is not a child who attracts the attention of admirers. Passed from one foster home to another, she becomes the object of a foster father’s perverted sexual obsession until placed in the secure though poor household of single mother Miranda. Forced to share her room with the newcomer, Miranda’s daughter, Lydia-Rose, resents the intruder. The girls only gradually adapt to their shared space, Lydia-Rose jealously guarding her mother’s attention. Shannon cultivates the demeanor of one who doesn’t belong, rebellious and moody as she reaches her teens.
The not-belonging haunts Shannon as time passes, her insistent troublemaking a natural condition of a child who cannot make peace with her circumstances: “How do you become part of someone else’s family? You don’t, you never do.” Over time, her behavior is exacerbated by rage. Shannon grows determined to find her birth mother in spite of the paucity of information available through official agencies. At this point, Celona parallels Shannon’s story with her mother’s: Yula’s preference for the freedom of rural life, her naiveté and flawed judgment in choosing an ex-con for a lover, his addiction to substances and self-destruction leading to a horrific night when the unthinkable happens and Yula gives birth to an infant she cannot saddle with her damaged history.
The journeys of both mother and daughter are freighted with psychological shadows. Shannon’s search for her mother finally bears fruit with the realization that there are many ways to define family. Often brutal and limned with the uncertain horrors of the foster care system, Shannon’s struggle to belong is not unusual, nor is her search for her mother. Yet it is a particularly joyless story, years defined by unhappiness and discontent, Shannon oblivious to the woman who takes the place of a mother and provides a home, albeit one scarred by poverty.
Perhaps Celona’s hard-edged realism is meant to leave an impression of the damage done to an abandoned child, the stark imprint of a system that falls too short too often. But the weight of these lives, both Shannon’s and Yula’s, leaves little space for small moments of contentment. Unhappiness settles like a pall over every chapter, victims of fate blinded by hardship. For another perspective, I would suggest The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell, with a similar theme but a far different approach to inhabiting a treacherous world.