________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 2 . . . . September 12, 2008

cover Y in the Shadows. (The XYZ Trilogy, Book 2).

Karen Rivers.
Vancouver, BC: Raincoast Books, 2008.
292 pp., pbk., $11.95.
ISBN 978-1-55192-972-9.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Thom Knutson.

***½ /4


Tony opens the door to his car. A hunk of rust falls to the ground. I hear it hit. The sounds remind me of when I have a migraine, just so tinny and sharp like they all have a razor-line shimmer around them. How can I get in? I can't sit on him. He'll see me for sure. I can see myself in the reflection of his side mirror, standing undecided. I can't see my face, but my body is definitely semi-visible. Tony isn't looking. He seems far away. Mad. He opens the back door to throw his stuff in and before I can think about it, I hurl myself in. He slams the door. I lie there just as I fell, heart beating so hard it's impossible to believe it won't burst. I'm panicking, I can't breathe. I'm dizzy, I feel sick. Guilty. Strange. Wrong. I hold myself completely still; not that he'd notice if I didn't, but I feel paralyzed.

This is so much scarier than it would be if it was, say, a movie. In a movie, I wouldn't be afraid.

But what am I afraid of?

I'm mostly afraid I'm going to be sick. Or I'm going to fall asleep or faint. Or that if I stop concentrating so hard, I'll suddenly reappear.

Tony turns the radio on. He's talking to himself, mumbling under his breath. I can't make out what he's saying. After a commercial, a song blasts out. He starts to sing. It's an old, old song that I recognize from my parents' collection. It's the kind of music they like to play when they're working, like Led Zeppelin or Def Leppard or some other ancient rock hair band. He's really singing.

He can't sing.

I mean, it's the kind of singing you'd hate for anyone to witness. Embarrassing singing. I can't help it, I feel embarrassed for him. He hits a high note. Well, misses a high note.

I laugh. I don't mean to, it just comes out. He doesn't hear me. No, no, of course, he doesn't. I shift a little. Get more comfortable. He's still singing. I start to feel a little safer.

From where I'm lying, on the floor of the back seat, I can only see part of his profile. I see him sloop his hands through his sweaty hair and fling the sweat off in the general direction of his lap. Then suddenly he shouts, "Fuck!"

I gasp. Did he see me?


Appearance and identity have always been a fundamental part of coming of age, and these concepts are effectively explored in the second title of Karen Rivers' XYZ Trilogy. For Yale, it is her appearance on one particular day that makes her long for disappearance. A talented high school gymnast, Yale is performing a routine in front of an audience when the worst imaginable thing happens: she gets her period. As the spreading red stains her white uniform, Yale burns with humiliation and the overwhelming desire to vanish. And disappear she does, in front of a hushed and confused audience. Through this newfound ability, Yale knows she is now able to enter the lives of those around her who have rendered her virtually invisible for so long: her parents, absorbed in a haze of pot smoking and computers, not revealing what Yale has already discovered — she has an older sister named Yale who was given up at birth; Michael Hyde-Smith, the popular girl embraced by 'The Girls', a tight clique "so purely evil that I can't believe they can stand themselves," and Tony Nelson, whose own story is underscored by the drug-related death of his brother and the subsequent damage to his parents.

      Once Yale discovers her special ability, she becomes more comfortable with the feeling it leaves her ("Your skin feels too hot to exist and then suddenly cold. You can't hear or smell anything for a second. Then it comes back in a rush, like static, but heightened. Overwhelming.") But the more she starts to penetrate the private lives of others, the more she is compelled to continue. Yet she also realizes the danger of knowing the vulnerabilities of those around her and feels like a stalker as she does so: “It's real. I can do it again. And I know I will. I have to. I can't stop now. Even though, maybe, I should.”

      Y in the Shadows is a loosely constructed romantic triangle involving Yale, Tony and Michael, told in alternating chapters. Rivers makes clear which relationship is the most important by voicing Yale and Tony in the first person. Yale doesn't expect that handsome Tony, a member of the rowing team, will be interested in her, especially when she knows Michael has Tony in her sights. As Tony confronts his conflicted feelings towards Michael ("she's so desperate up close"), Tony's best friend, Israel, decides to pursue Michael, himself. Israel is strong and very physical, and the plot darkens as Israel attempts to rape Michael on a school ski trip (Rivers includes an author's note on sexual assault at the end of the book.) Yale, having ridden undetected on the bus to the lodge, attempts to stop Israel with such anger and fear that she reappears. By the time Israel is stopped, the damage to Michael has been done, and her image at school begins to come apart. Yet it is this act which brings Michael and Yale closer together as social outcasts.

      As with X In Flight, Rivers employs a supernatural element to explore coming-of-age themes such as first love and body image, linking these ideas back to the story's central idea of appearance. Yale's sister has been made to disappear by her parents, yet Yale herself feels invisible at school and home. Michael's physical being belies her internalized struggles for self identity (“She's losing her grip on The Girls, losing her interest in them frankly. She's lost Tony. She's feeling somehow like she's slipping up in some irreversible way. She's losing herself.") Tony wishes he could disappear rather than deal with his father ("I beat my best time trial. It was like the water was pushing me along instead of stalling my progress. Shooting me forward. So much adrenalin going through my body it felt like something was going to give, something so powerful I'd be propelled out of the boat, into the sky, into the atmosphere, gone.") All three teens struggle to find and understand identity in the face of social pressures and expectations and family conflict.

      The text is enriched by imagery that brings to life the often mundane or unspoken. Michael's first kiss with Tony is an incredible moment tempered by reality:

The kiss also made her hyper-aware of the fact that her eye teeth were quite sharp, almost vampire-like, and when he thrust his tongue around in there she was almost afraid he'd get hurt. She also wondered about her own breath, probably terrible. She was instantly self-conscious, her insides curling like a salted slug from the horror of it.


      As she describes the world around her, Yale can be witty and sardonic, seeing the sad humour in small details, such as the scooter she drives to school:

The scooter breaks down almost every time I use it. Usually at an intersection (a busy one). It spurts random clots of black oil onto the road, like an old man spitting snot onto the sidewalks. It horks.


      What ultimately drives the plot is the reader's desire to know how far Yale will take advantage of her new ability and how it will change her relationships with Tony and Michael. While the novel is strong on character development, it is not without suspense or foreshadowing. The reader absorbs the tension as invisible Yale explores Michael's bedroom or hides in Tony's car, terrified that she may reappear without warning. Israeli, a secondary character, is the ominous presence that looms increasingly closer towards an unsure Michael ("Israel is just so feral"), eventually smashing open her lack of self-confidence.

      The absence of teacher supervision at the ski lodge comes across as somewhat surprising, although the alcohol use does not. This detail does not diminish the horror of the sexual assault, which is portrayed in the emotional as much as the physical. The story's most awkward scene presents Yale's discovery that her seemingly tuned-out parents are in fact electronically breaking into bank accounts and stealing funds. Undetected, she watches her parents at the computer, their activities revealed to Yale through forced dialogue — they need the money to pay for their older daughter's care.

      The XYZ Trilogy is packaged in creative, somewhat mysterious covers that will help sell the contents to readers, although it is definitely worthy of 'hand-selling' in a public or school library setting. Y in the Shadows will appeal to those teens, male or female, who have questioned their place in social or peer groups and families. Give this story to those who explore questions of physical and emotional appearances and self-identity. Which is probably most of us.

Highly Recommended.

Thom Knutson is the Youth Services Coordinator at Saskatoon Public Library.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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