From Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist to Harry Potter, fictional orphans are lonely, misunderstood, often small and markedly different from the people who raise them, and all haunted by the question: Why? Why am I alone in a world where everyone else seems to belong to someone?
Y, Marjorie Celonas heartfelt first novel, opens by defining its eponymous letter as the wishbone, the fork in the road, also the question we ask over and over. That question particularly bedevils Shannon, a short, squat adopted teenager with a white-blond Afro and one blind eye who doesnt resemble anyone shes ever met.
Set on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, half the novel traces Shannons passage through several foster homes into a fairly settled one and her subsequent efforts to locate her mother, Yula. Alternate chapters give Yulas history through the morning when she left her newborn daughter, so tiny her head was the size of a Yukon Gold potato, in front of a YMCA. That the two halves of this story converge is inevitable, since Shannon narrates both, but how and when they meet remains surprising.
A novel about a homely, forsaken child is bound to involve hardship and despair, and Shannon certainly endures both, but Celona adroitly confounds many of our expectations. Shannons abandonment is witnessed by a shy clairvoyant named Vaughn, who arrives early at the Y and glimpses Yula before she flees. He calls the police but answers their questions misleadingly; he believes he can foretell that this baby would be better off without her mother. And it seems that Vaughn may be right. Brought to a hospital, the baby tests positive for marijuana, though not for anything worse.
But perhaps he was wrong? Celona is interested in the split nature of almost any decision, the fork in the road that might go either way. For instance, Shannons first foster parents, Par and Raquelle, live across from a park where the homeless set up tents at night and the tennis court becomes an open-air market for drugs. But by day the park is beautiful, with giant rhododendrons, yew hedges in the shape of giant gumdrops, and Pacific dogwoods with dense, bright-white flowers.
From Yula to the YMCA, Shannon faces more than her share of Ys. Yet its refreshing to read a novel in which questions are not so much answered as extended, and Shannon is an appealing narrator, partly because she doesnt feel sorry for herself, at least not for long, or blame others for her struggles.
Remarkably balanced for a child of such upheaval, she realizes earlier than most of us that no matter who you are or where you come from you wind up with yourself at the end. Despite all of Shannons questions, all her yearning, and all those forks in the road, she discovers she cant imagine having had anyones life but my own.