Celona updates foundling narrative

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October 13, 2012


By Marjorie Celona
Published by Hamish Hamilton Canada, $30

Reviewed by Chris Fox

Marjorie Celona has updated the foundling novel for the 21st-century. Set on Vancouver Island, the back story of the abandonment, essentially that of the birth parents, is as developed as foundling Shannon’s story. Celona alternates events in the two stories with great skill to create a compelling, suspenseful narrative that finally unites both strands, and in doing so offers characters – and readers – penetrating insights into what constitutes “family.”

Celona’s novel gives a postmodern meta-nod to Tom Jones and like its foundling, Tom, Shannon has a lusty appetite for food: “I don’t want to eat at all if I can’t eat like a wild animal.” However, there the resemblance ends. Unlike Tom, Shannon’s appetite disappears at significant times, and is more likely to extend to illicit substances than to sexual adventures. Readers follow the contemporary foundling (and her sometimes unreliable narrative) as she is moved from one “at-risk” placement to another, finally arriving to relative safety with Miranda and her daughter Lydia-Rose. Here, Celona effectively captures the naïve, strangely confident demeanor that accompanies the troubled, but determined, 16-year-old Shannon’s first steps into independence.

Because there is suspense in this story, I hesitate to give too much away; however, it is no surprise that a child who’s been abandoned wonders how and why she was left and seeks the identity of her biological parents. Shannon’s drive to “find the why” of it all takes her to the Y(MCA), and to the hard-knock downtowns of Victoria and Vancouver. Her earlier traumas make her vulnerable to others, but though Shannon still hurts herself, she has, miraculously, developed a strong sense of self-preservation that impels her to flee the greatest dangers.

Shannon is also lucky. Her luck is that she attends to key pieces of advice given to her by her strongest mother, Miranda, a kindly social worker, and a street musician. This faculty (and the Times Colonist story of her birth) leads Shannon back to Victoria’s YMCA and to Vaughn, the man who witnesses Shannon’s mother leaving her four-pound preemie newborn at the Y’s doors at sunrise. Vaughn is Y’s guardian angel, a weight trainer at the Y. He is a seer, and one who believes he can affect how the future unfolds. Vaughn helps Shannon with her quest by giving her nourishment, mobility, wisdom, and companionship.

Celona’s writing, more gritty than lyrical, makes this compelling tale believable, keeps us reading long after bedtime because we care about Shannon and we want to know what happens. In part, it’s Celona’s use of concrete detail that draws us in. For Victorians, it’s also satisfying to read about “our town” written by a local writer. Celona was a graduate of UVic’s star-studded Creative Writing Program before gaining an MFA from Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. Y’s characters drive in and out of Victoria along Douglas Street, as have we all, passing the Ukrainian Cultural Centre, the Mayfair Mall, and Thompson’s Foam Shop. She also captures the liveliness, friendliness, and desperation of the Dallas Road and downtown park night life as Victoria’s homeless and addicted meet and share drugs. Celona’s vision is empathetic and compassionate; she enables readers to understand the innocence with which horror can arrive and destroy lives.

But she doesn’t leave us there. Shannon’s life begins again – signalled by a clever repeat of the novel’s opening paragraphs – and this time she is more solidly and consciously a part of the family that has been hammered out in the forge of her coming of age quest.
I had to “Add” Celona to my spellcheck as I wrote this; I recommend we add her to the Canadian literary canon as well. Y is a worthy Giller nominee.

Victoria resident Chris Fox just completed a PhD in English, with a focus on Canadian literature. She has been published in The Malahat Review, Ariel, Atlantis and Studies in Canadian Literature


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