It’s with a subtle touch, but Nadia Bozak solidly roots the reader in time and place.
This is not an easy task, because Shell only grows to the age of seventeen in Thirteen Shells — across thirteen stories, and childhood is inherently rootless.
So the details noted must be those within a child’s reach, displayed without context, but generously, so that readers can inflate their understanding. Her use of language is most often straight-forward, only occasionally poetic (like snow with “wet, melty flakes the size of teabags”).
Consider this observation in “Please Don’t Pass Me By”: “Dad and Kremski shake their heads and talk a lot about the USA. The words they use are long and sticky: fundamentalist, hegemony, ideology. ‘Imagine if Ronald Reagan actually gets in?'”
Key concepts are undefined, vague and amorphous, and readers are left to imagine a time in which that election’s outcome was still unthinkable for left-wing voters (who are now asking the same question about Donald Tr*mp).
A political awareness simmers beneath Thirteen Shells, primarily via Shell’s parents, but the bulk of the narrative is preoccupied with a young girl’s everyday life (parents moving closer to the periphery as the years pass and pages turn).
In “Snow Tire”, Shell observes different details as an older girl (fashion and other consumer goods) and although she hasn’t yet begun to make some of the value judgements that an adult observer might make, sometimes there is room for readers to peek between the lines:
“Vicki’s mum starts doing things like raking the leaves and walking slowly up to the store to get small bags of chips, or she picks Vicki up from school and walks back with her and Shell. She goes from the white jeans to a new pair of stonewash that don’t show her underwear lines and she cuts her hair so it’s feathery like Princess Di’s. And then, more and more, when Clarke is at work, a black Trans Am is parked in the drive.”
Often, Nadia Bozak simply captures Shell’s childish misunderstandings, but she leaves them untouched and unexplained, so that readers can reach for another understanding, if so inclined.
“Shell should learn to be Muslim: gentle and polite and pleasing to adults. Girl Muslims must be super pretty if Marmoon is and he’s a boy, and they probably don’t lie or steal or dig holes in the backyard with their dads. Shell checked, but none of the makeup in her shoebox would turn her skin darker, so instead she lies out in the sun and brushes her teeth extra hard so they look white against her deepening tan.” (“Fair Trade”)
Shell’s growth can be charted by birthdays and other marks on the wall/page, but also by the kinds of details which take on a new prominence in the stories, like her appreciation of Patti Smith, The Clash, Talking Heads, and Sonic Youth in “Hole in the Wall”.
“It’s good to be in the immensity of Sam’s and with a sense of purpose. She heads for Rock and fills her arms with so many tapes she might not have enough money to pay for them.”
So, here she is old enough to want to go to Sam the Record Man, but not old enough to recognize the restrictions of an adult’s entertainment budget, but sometimes her growth is more deliberately indicated:
“Suddenly Shell’s eyes surge with tears. Because she loves Mum so much and Dad and even Valery, with her chocolate chicken and caramel eyes, and she loves Maček too – of course she does! – but with those words she knows she’ll have to leave here – the cool bed sheets that smell like Nivea and the rap of Maček’s sturdy, steady hammer. She’ll have to go someplace where the library has more books and the essays she writes can be longer and harder and so beautiful and in a way Somerset can’t ever understand. And she’ll have to go soon. A world lives out there. She’s already seventeen.” (“New Roof”)
Similarly, sometimes the passage of time is more deliberately charted, as when particular elements in earlier stories reappear in later ones, with a fresh outlook and new level of comprehension.
Gaps in the story are handed deftly, so that readers can fill in the spaces which remained unexplained for the children who were unmoored by dramatic changes.
Her friend Vicki articulates one of the work’s central themes: home (which also surfaces in Nadia Bozak’s prior works, like Orphan Love and El Nino) Vicki says: “I miss you, Shell. And when I have a dream that’s set in a house, it’s always yours.”
A conversation with her friend Wendy not only reveals aspects the girls’ personalities, but also a plot development which occurred off-stage (I’m not saying which story this comes from, to avoid a spoiler about when Wendy might have an occasion to wonder about this).
“When they’re checking out library books, Shell says to Wendy, ‘Oh, you like Judy Blume. You ever read Tiger Eyes?”
But all Wendy wants to know about is how Shell’s dad doesn’t live with her anymore. Is it true strangers pay rent to live in Shell’s old bedroom while Shell sleeps in the basement like a hobbit?
Relationships are at the heart of Thirteen Shells. Her parents are vivid and multi-dimensional characters (whose identities become increasingly coloured as time passes), and her friendships undergo many changes as well.
But Shell also has important relationships with books, from Judy Blume to Noam Chomsky: her reading taste changes as she grows. “Sometimes she walks and reads at the same time, or reads in class, a paperback hidden inside her textbook.”
See, if you didn’t already like Shell, now you do, right? You want to get to know her, don’t you?