Debut novel seeks answer to life's hardest question

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‘Y” opens with a sentence that, in part, explains the novel’s title: “My life begins at the Y.”

Shannon, the narrator of Marjorie Celona’s debut novel, is referring to a YMCA, but also to a specific question that largely drives the book: Why did Shannon’s mother abandon her? That question leads to a second: How does being abandoned shape Shannon’s life?

Delivered largely in a relentless present tense, “Y” follows both Shannon and her birth mother, Yula (note the tethering “Y”), and in doing so considers questions of nature and nurture. Issues of family and loyalty are also at the forefront of the book’s concerns, particularly as Yula clings to her troubled father but abandons her daughter and as Shannon rebels against the foster mother who tries to make a life for her.

Celona, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, allows Shannon to narrate Yula’s story, as well as her own. It’s a daring maneuver, as the present tense narration rolls on and Shannon’s level of omniscience regarding her mother wavers: “It’s hard to say what happened next, or why so many hours later my mother was asleep in the back of the Volkswagen camper, peacefully high on weed. At eighteen, she still sleeps like a child: deeply and happily. Her hand rests on her pregnant belly, and her eyelids flutter as she dreams.”

Shannon’s insistent voice and her need to know why her life is the way it is — indeed, why she is the way she is — keep the reader engaged in her unusual coming-of-age story. The book reminds us that no question is harder to answer than “why,” no matter how much we may desire that answer.

Book reading

  • What: Marjorie Celona reads from “Y”
  • Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
  • When: 7 p.m. Monday
  • Cost: Free

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