Y – Marjorie Celona

There’s a baby here! A baby left by her mother – I think – I was waiting for the doors to open, she put the baby here and walked away, young girl, not good with ages, late teens, I guess? There’s a baby here, right here. Oh, I didn’t look – “ He looks. “It’s a girl.” 

Y begins with our narrator, a few hours old, abandoned on the doorstep of the Y (the YMCA), wrapped in a grey sweatshirt with a Swiss Army Knife beneath her feet. She is found by Vaughn, who works at the Y, and has seen our narrator’s mother leave her there. But he lies to the police about the mother’s description – ‘he knows I am better off without her’ – and so begins our narrator’s journey through foster care, adoption and finally, the search for her birth family.

Our narrator is initially Lily, named by one of the nurses at the children’s hospital she is taken to while appeals for her mother to come forward are made. Then, for Parez and Raquelle, she is Shandi, who’s ‘”…going to be a model”…because I’m a string bean baby and a bit longer than average’. When Raquelle’s life falls apart, Shandi becomes Shannon for Julian and Moira. This last one until she is three when she’s removed by a social worker:

The longest word in the Oxford English dictionary is floccinaucinihilipilification. It means “the action or habit of estimating something as worthless.” This is the last thing Julian teaches me before I’m rushed out of the door in the arms of the social worker when I am three years old, my little arm in a bright blue cast.

For a while, in a children’s home where she is ‘the sixth child in a four bed home…[sharing]…the bottom bunk with a smelly girl who wets the bed’, she is Samantha, until finally, she is adopted by Miranda. Miranda ‘is a cinnamon-coloured woman who works as a Molly Maid and was once married to a man named Dell’ and has a daughter of her own called Lydia-Rose. Our narrator returns to and remains Shannon.

You’ve probably gathered by now that our narrator’s childhood is pretty grim: pushed from house to house; bullied at school; cared for by people with plenty of problems of their own.

I would never keep a diary, lest someone like me discovered it. There are too many ugly thoughts in my head. Who wants to write this stuff down? Who wants to remember it? Today I thought about stepping in front of a bus. Today I wondered whether it would hurt more to slit my wrists or hang myself in the closet. Today I prayed to God because my stomach hurt so bad I thought I was dying.

And the misery doesn’t end there.

Between chapters of Shannon’s story from birth to adulthood, we are told the story of Shannon’s birth parents and her younger brother; a story far bleaker than her own.

This is an interesting story told by a captivating narrator. Celona’s sentences are often short, sharp and pacey, giving us the full force of Shannon’s personality from the opening lines of the novel.

The only part of the book that didn’t work for me was Shannon narrating her parent’s story too, a story that she can only have been told by her birth mother and father towards the end of the timeline of the book. It seemed wrong to have her working as an omnipotent narrator in a time before she was born, particularly as her own story is very much told from her own point of view.

However, this is still an accomplished debut, worthy of its inclusion in this year’s Waterstones’ 11. Marjorie Celona’s definitely one to keep an eye on.

Thanks to Faber and Faber for the review copy.

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