By Catherine Taylor for The Times
“The wishbone, fork in the road. The question we ask over and over. Why?” Such is the interrogative at the heart of Marjorie Celona’s impassioned first novel about the troubled early life of Shannon, left as a newborn baby outside the YMCA on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
Its “road not taken” premise also covers Shannon’s back story and the convulsive events leading up to her birth and abandonment by teenaged mother Yula. Yula is the most potent realisation of the letter Y, and of Shannon’s yearning to establish her origins.
Celona treats her foundling heroine with brutal exhilaration, dipping between shuddering sadness and other-worldly ecstasy. Shannon narrates throughout – including the parallel biographies of Yula, son Eugene, drug addict partner Harrison and the intense love/hate relationship between Yula’s parents. As far as the raising of children goes, the family is a mess. Who’s to say that Shannon, by being given up, will not have the better deal?
Her matter-of-fact account cuts to the quick from the start, when the tiny baby who has the “head of a Yukon Gold Potato” is batted around between foster homes, perfunctorily attended to and, in one awful case, abused. The child responds with equanimity and – this is a drawback – a peculiar overarching omniscience.
Shannon’s unusual appearance also seems to amplify, rather insistently, her outsider status: extremely short of stature with a wild halo of white-blonde hair and one blind eye. Well into adolescence, self-protectiveness – for who else is to protect her? – and lack of physical development make the girl strangely asexual. This is compounded by others’ view of her as either freak or talisman. Both interpretations disturb in this story without a fairy-tale ending.
The most grounding aspect of the book is Shannon’s eventual stability of sorts with single mother Miranda and her daughter, Lydia-Rose. Miranda is somewhat caricatured as the tough cookie who has a heart of gold, but the vicious rivalry/camaraderie between her adopted and real daughter is wincingly well drawn.
It is said that biology is destiny, but in this frequently moving novel Celona sensibly opts for the conclusion that the strongest family unit is not necessarily one that is genetically connected.
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