Celona’s debut novel has been highly and widely praised. The PR machine would have you believe that Y heralds the arrival of “a magnificent new voice in contemporary fiction”. Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Yes, this book is good. Yes, Celona is clearly talented. But it’s far from perfect. Maybe the hyperbole had me expecting the next Secret History, a hype to which no book could ever live up, and that’s why it fell short.
The book opens with baby Shannon abandoned at the Y on the day she is born. She serves as the book’s omniscient first person narrator, telling her story as well as her absent mother, Yula. The stories are interwoven so we find out why Shannon was abandoned simultaneously with the effect said abandonment is having on Shannon’s formative years.
In telling the story of a tough and very damaged girl who is driven by the need to find the parents who abandoned her, Celona’s reach does exceed her grasp. Firstly, Shannon is difficult to like. While her endlessly unpleasant behaviour is understandable, if there isn’t even a scrap of charm on which to hang all the meanness, then it makes her a tough sell. Secondly, there are some clumsy moments. For example, during one of Yula’s chapters, we learn of how Yula’s mother died. The next chapter, we hear about it all over again, as if it’s supposed to be new and shocking information.
Elsewhere, the impetus is sucked out of the book by such clumsy moments. The main driving force of the novel is Shannon’s endless search for her birth parents. So when, 60 pages from the end, Shannon tells us that “I will never know this. I will never know her”, while filling in some more of Yula’s history, you know what you’re in for. Letting those last 60 pages unfold without that aside might have made them affecting, rather than tiresomely inevitable.
I’m being a little unfair to Celona though. That she has a distinctive voice and considerable writing talent is obvious. While it’s hard to like Shannon, the book is full of other brilliantly drawn and quite lovely characters. When the book isn’t tripping over its own structure, it offers many flashes of brilliance. Check the moment Celona deploys Shanon’s first f-bomb. Not only is it laugh out loud funny, it also tells the reader what sort of adolescence she’s going to have. All in all, a qualified success.