Marjorie Celona is the answer to my prayers — a writer from Vancouver Island who doesn’t play it safe. I heard about her debut novel, Y, through the British chain bookshop Waterstones: each year, the company releases a list of dazzling debut novels, hoping to grab those readers who urgently search the shelves for a glimpse of the next Jane Austen or Toni Morrison. It was only after picking up the book from the Greater Victoria Public Library that I realized Celona was an Island native — and that her gripping story of loss, love and identity doles out portraits of Victoria like decadent cream.
The book plunges readers into the world of Shannon, the orphaned protagonist and narrator left under the awning of the YMCA on Broughton Street. Shannon passes from one foster family to another, and the reader must confront the despair these transitions provoke through Celona’s painfully crisp prose: “They view me as a guinea pig or suckerfish — something foreign to be prodded and experimented on — something fascinating, but not at all, not for a second, human.”
Celona’s ability to depict Shannon’s confusion while simultaneously adopting the girl’s perspective as a narrative anchor is the novel’s chief strength, but the author’s deft characterization also shines through the entirety of the book. An early-morning gym fanatic who finds the abandoned girl becomes a “seer” through Celona’s lens. Shannon’s grandmother, Jo, a disagreeable, isolated woman, is imbued with passion and warmth following a motorcycle accident. Celona transforms a nameless, scared little girl who wets the bed into a figure of immense compassion in a few short phrases — this is remarkably well-crafted prose at work. Every character is full of ambiguity; no one is solely guilty for the loss that Shannon feels, but all are connected, responsible.
The author’s vivid portraits of the neighbourhoods of Victoria and Sooke will shine brightest in Y for local readers. Celona’s synecdochical storefronts — “7-Eleven, Thompson’s Foam Shop, White Spot, Red Hot Video” — will make a great many locals smile; having your hometown reduced by way of a digestible literary trope is a delight. Fernwood’s quiet parks, Willows Beach, the tennis courts at Stadacona Park, Mom’s Cafe — all of these settings gain the magic of Celona’s careful selection and placement.
The book is exactly what critics around the globe assert it to be: a magnificent debut novel; but Islanders receive an additional level of entertainment from Y. Celona has chosen to adopt the setting of the Island as cultural capital worthy of spending in foreign markets, and therefore locals are granted a trick of perspective and illustration that will enthrall them — they get a chance to observe their home through the eyes of a distant, captivated readership.