It’s a silly title for a book. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Or rather, it did. Although highly recommended, I put off reading Y, the debut novel by Marjorie Celona, because of that title. It smacked of gimmickry. The first page didn’t really help much either. That was pretty silly too. Y, that perfect letter, the wishbone, the fork in the road, empty wineglass (perhaps that should be Martini glass.) Y, Why? Yup, I get it. But then things got much, much better.
In alternating chapters Shannon narrates both her story and that of her mother, Yula, as Yula nears giving birth. After being abandoned at the Y building she is dragged through a series of dysfunctional and occasionally abusive temporary homes including those where they could always squeeze in one more because “there’s good money in foster care they’d said.” Her name is as impermanent as her “family”, changing at the whim of the parent of the moment.
She learns from one of her “fathers” that “the longest word in the Oxford English dictionary is floccinaucinihilipification. It means the action or habit of estimating something as worthless.” That was just before “I am rushed out of the door in the arms of a social worker.” Finally at five she ends up with Miranda who works as a Molly Maid and was once married to a man called Dell and who has a bedroom on the top floor of the house that is off limits. She has a daughter, Lydia-Rose, who with the imperiousness that goes with a home ground advantage updates her on the rules. There are three cats and a part foxhair terrier called Winkie.
Miranda wants both girls to have nice things, to eat well, to go to school, to have dreams, to see a future. To be a family. Under Miranda’s wing the peripatetic Lily, Shandi, Shannon, Samantha becomes, finally, Shannon. She is short and slightly odd looking “a cross between Shirley Temple and a pug” with an untameable halo of gold frizzy hair. But she is resilient and curiously accepting, almost grateful, for her lot. She tries to like and be liked at school, to be a good “daughter” and is guilty about her own shortcomings and doesn’t know how to change.
Shannon’s recounting of Yula’s life is painfully matter-of-fact and understanding because she above all understands it: dysfunctional life, family whose relationships fluctuate between loving and abusive, overwhelming loss and inexplicable enduring affection. She is someone for whom abandoning her newly-born child is less an act of desperation than one of reality and optimism.
In the final chapters Yula and Shannon’s stories, and the narrative, merge. Y sets out as a classic story of an abandoned child’s driving need to establish identity, to know who she is, based on meeting or at least finding out who are her natural parents. But as Shannon’s journey progresses Celona shows that the adage of blood being thicker than water doesn’t always hold true. The genetic link can be ephemeral. Instead it is the people who support you in good and bad times, who don’t give up on you, who help you in your quests and who ultimately want you to be with them, are your real family.
It should be a depressing read but it isn’t. Ultimately, Celona has created a strangely uplifting book that is an amazing achievement as a first novel. I can’t wait to see what she produces for a follow-up book. I just hope that next time, someone can think of a better title.