There was something familiar about the cover of this book on first glance. Nadia Bozak’s collection of short stories, Thirteen Shells (House of Anansi), on the surface looks quite similar to the poster for the 2014 Richard Linklater film Boyhood.
The former features a young girl lying in the grass facedown, one arm extended above her head, the other bent at the elbow. The latter features a young boy sprawled on almost too-perfect grass in much the same pose, only lying on his back. It’s an intentional reference, as the publisher notes on the back that it’s a book “told in the tradition” of Linklater’s film as well as Alice Munro’s The Lives of Girls and Women.
This definitely upped the stakes going into my reading of this book – I enjoyed Boyhood and love anything Alice Munro puts to the page. To have it compared to both from the outset meant it would either impress or fall disappointingly flat – luckily, Bozak delivers.
Described as a “novel-in-stories,” the book follows protagonist Shell, an only child, in 13 parts – one for each year from the ages of five to 17. In the span of those years, we see her grapple with everything from sneaking junk food at the neighbour’s house (Shell’s parents don’t allow popular cereals or treats in their cupboards – homemade buckwheat pancakes are the standard breakfast) to her parents’ divorce and binge eating as a teenager.
Growing up between ’70s and ’80s, Shell may be free from the typical distractions of teens with cell phones and social media profiles, but her experience is, at its heart, one that many can likely see themselves in. Whether it’s navigating high school and relationships or body image issues, Shell becomes the mirror through which we can see little pieces of ourselves.
With each new story, we see Shell transform from a curious, eager young girl to a more quiet, reserved young woman who wears oversized T-shirts to cover parts of herself she has grown to dislike. As she grows into her adolescent body, we see her become more reserved and less inclined to put herself out there. She starts to hide and cover up. There’s a sense that Shell is afraid to call too much attention to herself, as she immediately begins to feel regret after getting a fancy pair of overalls made – modeled after a picture of Patti Smith – to wear to a friend’s mother’s wedding.
On any other day, Shell is happy enough in her usual uniform of jeans, which her mother calls “revolting.”
It’s been eight weeks since Shell washed the men’s Levi’s she wears every day to school. It’s like with her hair – now a month without shampoo: after a time the fabric will stop being oily and itchy and just sort of clean itself.
While Bozak draws from some of her own childhood memories (Shell’s parents are artisans; Bozak dedicates the book to her father, “a gifted artist and craftsman”), which ultimately lends the stories some of their feeling of authenticity, she is clearly a skilled, imaginative writer whose prose brings to mind the likes of Heather O’Neill. Her stories are richly told in a way that feels gratifying but not overindulgent. Describing a fiddlehead-picking trip between Shell and her father, Bozak writes:
Dad carries both bags, trudging up what is now an incline. Amber lozenges of day shimmer through the trees ahead.
Thirteen Shells is a book laced with colourful prose that paints a complete picture of the inner life of a young girl navigating all the pressures and troubles of growing up. Bozak’s writing has a certain charm to it that can often cause a reader to stop short – perhaps re-read certain sentences or paragraphs just for the way she weaves her words. That’s certainly the impact Munro has, so to compare the two authors based on this work is not a far cry at all.
(House of Anansi, Fiction, Paperback, May 2016)
LESLEY LEROUX is a writer, editor and artist based in Canada’s capital (originally from Newfoundland). She graduated with a degree in journalism from Carleton University. Her fiction, nonfiction and photography have been published both in print and online, and she has occasionally dabbled in radio and television. She is a feminist, bibliophile and yogi who can be found tweeting about any of the above @LesleyLeRoux.