‘The Shore’ caught my eye earlier this year because, well, why woudn’t it with a cover that fabulous? I mentally filed away the name and then let things simmer until I saw it reappear, not on a bookshelf, but in the shortlist for the Peters, Fraser and Dunlop/Sunday Times ‘Young Writer Award’. It was back at the top of the reading pile and I’m so so grateful because I couldn’t have started December with a better book.
‘The Shore’ has been described as a collection of short stories and as a novel. It doesn’t really matter which definition you follow, as the book takes the best from both forms, combining the distilled clarity of the short story with the sustained structure of a novel spanning decades and generations. At the start of the book is a family tree and each chapter deals with one or more members of the sprawling and dysfunctional tribe. If you will, it is a condensed Rougon Macquart cycle for our times, allowing Taylor to explore heredity, society, melodramatic violence and mystical hope through a single family who dominate and are dominated by their geographical location.
Going with another analogy, the book deals with the impoverished and brutalised population of the American hinterland. I was frequently reminded of the award-winning ‘Winter’s Bone’, a film which shows a society equally poised between claustrophobia and isolation, where violence is commonplace and the law is very far away.
The first story ‘Target Practice’ sets the tone and quality of the whole book:
When news of the murder breaks I’m in Matthew’s, buying chicken necks so my little sister Renee and I can go crabbing. There isn’t much in the way of food in the house, but we found a dollar and sixty-three cents in change, and decided free crabs would get us the most food for that money. Usually we use bacon rinds for bait, but we’ve eaten those already.
As Renee listens to the gossip about the murder she notes ‘my necks are starting to drip blood and chicken ooze through their newspaper onto my leg‘. Then she goes home to practice shooting. There is violence in nearly every story in the book, but it is everyday, as much a part of the landscape as the storms, the wild horses and the meth labs. Women are walking targets, ‘Skirt’ begins ominously with the lines ‘She shouldn’t have been wearing a skirt, Bo said to us after. It was her own damn fault’, but no one is safe; I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with so much castration.
As the stories jump forward and back in time a wonderful tension is set up between the claustrophobia and the idea of escape promised by the island existence. The richness of the natural resources is contrasted powerfully with the economic hardship and rigid societal hierarchies. Times change (chronologically, the stories move far into the future) but the constraints and freedom of the setting are a constant. Everyone in the book exists within this liminal space, partly belonging to the state of Virginia and partly creatures of the wild, with all of the power and vulnerability this entails.
The Young Writers prize is going to be awarded today. I do hope ‘The Shore’ will give me a hat trick for agreeing with the judges in 2015 (I loved the Bailey’s winning ‘How to Be Both‘ and managed to get it right with ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’), however, even if I don’t get my choice, I’ll still have the enjoyment of a truly wonderful book. As for the intimidating title of this specific prize, it’s a reminder that all of the authors nominated are under 35. I’m sure everyone who’s read ‘The Shore’ will be joining me in hoping that we will see much more from Taylor for many years to come.