Featured bedtime read: Y

By Marjorie Celona, 2013

4.5 out of 5

'My life begins at the Y…'

Abandoned as a newborn at the doors of the local YMCA and then bounced between foster homes, Shannon eventually finds stability in the home of Miranda, a single mother with a daughter of her own. But as Shannon grows, so do her questions. Will she ever belong? Who is her true family? And why would her parents abandon Shannon on the day she was born?

The answers lie in the heartrending tale of her mother, a headstrong young woman trapped in a series of events that will change her life forever.


That perfect letter. The wishbone, fork in the road, empty wineglass. The question we ask over and over. Why? Me with my arms outstretched, feet in first position. The chromosome half of us don't have. Second to last in the alphabet: almost there. Coupled with an L, let's make an adverb. A modest X, legs closed. Y or N? Yes, of course. Upside-down peace sign. Little bird tracks in the sand.

Y, a Greek letter, joined the Latin alphabet after the Romans conquered Greece in the first century — a double agent: consonant and vowel. No one used adverbs before then, and no one was happy.

Marjorie Celona's debut novel Y opens in a frank, astonishing description of a mother dumping her newborn baby. Events are described by the abandoned child, Shannon, the book's narrator.

'A furtive peck like a frightened bird is all the baby gets before her mother is off, her strides fast and light now that her arms are empty.'

It's 5.15am on August 28th in Canada, and so begins Shannon's rocky journey to find a family, as she puts it so succinctly: 'how do you become part of someone else's family?'

Yula abandoning her daughter outside the YMCA building is the pivotal act from which the novel springs. It's the fork in the road, the Y shape, where two stories will converge and become one. For Shannon's early life, a human version of pass the parcel, as the blonde toddler is bumped form house to home — a victim of thoughtlessness, even cruelty. And then for Shannon's birth mum Yula, her story, her young, helpless, hopeful life with Harrison, with his butterscotch coloured hair and drug habit. Shannon tells us that her dad smelled like horses, like cheap cologne, like mint. He had a raspy voice and some kind of shiny gel in his hair, his arms shone like they'd been oiled.

The two tales have been interwoven, Shannon grows up, she acquires a new mum, Miranda, a cinnamon coloured woman, who works as a Molly Maid, and was once married to a man named Dell. As a reader, you can briefly breathe — relief!

'Miranda has a big, bright face like the moon itself has walked into the room. And she cooks lentil soup and then slides an ice cube into each of our bowls until it cools.'

Has Shannon got her lucky break at last? Here she is growing up, stumpy looks, wonky eye, afro blonde hair — she's tricky, of course, aren't all adolescents? And inside there are the burning questions. 'I want to know who my mother is, I want to know who my real family is, who I really belong to, why I look this way, why I feel this way.'

Y is an extraordinary book, even more so towards the end, when Yula's story starts to strum with tension, culminating in the shocking events before poor Shannon's birth. It's against this action that the narrator's own serious quest for discovery is staked out. Things aren't easy for adoptive mum Miranda either. Shannon tells us, 'I said the cruellest thing I could think of to say, you're NOT my mother'.

The converging of the two stories towards the end is breathtaking. Tears spilt down my cheeks, I scrabbled to read and re-read the final chapters. It was strangely affirming, but there is no easy answer or happily ever after. Life doesn't pan out like that. It generally doesn't end with a Hollywood smile and a big pink bow, and that's why this book works. Y is so good, it could be real.

Listen to Tessa's review

More reviews

  • Y is a beautiful, moving book that explores what it takes to belong from a new author with a voice that is bold, surefooted and confident.- The Guardian
  • Compassionate and keenly observed… Celona's well-judged conclusion does indeed fill the heart to bursting.- The Daily Mail
  • Read user reviews on Amazon

More about the author

Marjorie Celona

Marjorie Celona has been the Olive B. O'Connor Fellow at Colgate University and writer-in-residence at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and Harvard Review.

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