Bozak’s quiet, observant novel in stories touches down once a year into the life of young Shell, who grows up in the 1970s and '80s in a small town outside Toronto.
Shell is 5 when the novel opens. She’s the only child of two artists whose dedication to the counterculture, and opposition to all things American, makes them the subject of scrutiny by their neighbors. In the first story, they’ve moved into a new house, where they convert the garage into a pottery studio and the backyard into a vegetable garden. At this point, Shell is already wondering why her parents barely look at each other. Over the next stories—during which the “thirteen Shells” of the title emerge—their marriage breaks down, and Shell is left with her frazzled mother while her father moves to Toronto. But meanwhile, the little events of ordinary life accumulate, and Shell builds up a box of keepsakes related to them. She picks fiddleheads with her father to sell to a local restaurant, begins a tumultuous friendship with the girl who moves in next door, and hides her father’s dental plate so he won’t go out to an art opening without her mother. Her teenage years see her gaining weight, experimenting with drugs, reading William Blake, and falling in love with inappropriate guys. Bozak (El Nino, 2014, etc.) structures the novel with care, bookending it with Shell’s moves into and out of the family home, resisting big moments in favor of complex, smaller ones in which the choices Shell makes subtly reverberate into her future selves. Where many novels in stories fall into the trap of stitching together vaguely autobiographical stories and hoping they’ll make a whole, this one feels organic: the young woman who evolves from the little girl is the same person, just further complicated.
A coming-of-age tale that resists the usual clichés to focus on the telling details that reveal the essence of a life.