A coming-of-age tale that resists the usual clichés to focus on the telling details that reveal the essence of a life.


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.

Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-77089-987-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: House of Anansi Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.


One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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