Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
There is a certain beauty in literature that only can be expressed through the naive, unsure nature of a child growing up amidst the razor edges of dysfunctionality. In Thirteen Shells, Ottawa author Nadia Bozak takes this to a new level by dulling these edges with the unassailable love of a girl for her parents.
I will admit that at first, I was unconvinced by Bozak's latest novel. Technically perfect, Bozak's prose floats the innocent emotions of her protagonist, Shell, on a sea of studied lyricism. But the opening chapters reminded me a tad too much of Heather O'Neill without the latter's tough witticisms. Maybe it was the lack in those chapters of an original arc or the suggestion of a re-hashing of the perpetual and repetitive coming-of-age story that fuelled my scepticism. I fully expected that the plot would eventually cash in on the now too common theme of sexual abuse. I waited for that shoe to drop, but I was wrong. For several chapters, I turned the pages dutifully as a book reviewer should until at some mysterious point I found them turning themselves and drawing me into the character of Shell. The game-changer was when I began to think that just perhaps the author was recounting her own story, so life-like her characters had become.
Thirteen Shells is not a complex story. It recounts thirteen years of the childhood of a young girl, who is five at the beginning of the tale and whose Bohemian parents soon drift apart. Shell's father is an aspiring artist from the Prairies who endeavours to carve out an autarkic but creative existence in a small southwestern Ontario city, and somewhere along the way loses the affection of his wife. Shell's dad is a true diamond in the rough, enthusiastically propelled to succeed in his art but unable to shake off his hillbilly-like mannerisms. Her mother, a saint-like but eternally tired creature at first, becomes Shell's bedrock when the father decides to move to Toronto to pursue a graduate degree in art.
Shell's resilience to her parents' break-up grows in the company of her friends, each an outsider like Shell. Her best friend Vicki lives with her pretty but obese mother whose tyrannical boyfriend takes an instant disdain to Shell and her parents. Mamoon is a gentle Muslim boy, for whom Shell feels a budding affection until Vicki intrudes with her precocious brashness. Driven by a desire for attention, Shell is drawn to boys even more marginalized than she is. The harelipped foster kid, Lipper, is the first to give her a sense of self-worth as a young woman, only to empty her house of food and cash before disappearing. Later, the quiet Macek, a twenty-something illegal Czech immigrant, enthralls her despite his physical imperfections. And in the novel's beautiful end note, he becomes Shell's first and perhaps lasting love.
There are passages of Thirteen Shells where Bozak perfects the transfer of uncertainly to the reader. When Shell visits her destitute artist, now student, father in Toronto, she learns that her father's apartment has been burned down by his eccentric roommate. We live Shell's apprehension that she will end up spending the night on the streets or camping in a public park as her father constantly evades answering where they will sleep. As suspenseful as this chapter is, its real treasure is in the development of Shell as the child who will always forgive her parents, no matter their shortcomings. It is this quality that binds the reader to the story, not by identification with the protagonist per se, but with her forgiveness, something that we all seek, whether in the conscious or subconscious.
Shell is no angel. She lies and steals, at least a little. Experiments with drugs. And has her petty jealousies. But by the midpoint in the novel, the readers find themselves rooting for Shell, hoping that her dreams will come true. And that is the novel's brilliance.
Thirteen Shells is published by House of Anansi