Sara Taylor’s ‘The Shore‘ was one of my top reads of 2015; with a nod to Talyor’s nomination for the Peters, Fraser and Dunlop/Sunday Times ‘Young Writer Award’ my review was entitled ‘The Future of Fiction is Bright Indeed.’ The thing about discovering a wonderful book by a new young novelist however is that is can sometimes take many years for the initial promise to be fulfilled. Fortunately, fans of the ‘The Shore’ can rest easy for a while, a new novel was published this summer and, for my money, it establishes Taylor as an enduring talent with a multitude of stories to tell.
I have a feeling I’m going to tie myself in syntactical knots in this review so I’ll try to get the confusion out of the way early. The book narrated by Alex and, though first person narration and what seems like effortless literary slight of hand, Taylor avoids certain significant pronouns. As some point it becomes apparent that we haven’t learned if Alex is a boy or a girl. What could have been casual omission is shown to be a deliberate choice; when at a new school Alex is aware ‘that eventually someone would make an issue of my careful androgyny and I’d have to choose my side in the war, make up my mind as to where my allegiance lay, whether I identified more with my mother or my father. Because in my mind that’s what they were asking: do you want to grow up to be like your mom or your dad, Alex? And I still wanted to know why I couldn’t be both, why it was an either/or situation.’ As the novel continues Alex hits puberty, but sexual awakening is kept carefully separate from gender categories. Others may try to insist on answers, but Alex is belligerent; ‘knowing someone’s sex doesn’t tell you anything. About that person, anyway. I suppose the need to know, how knowing changes the way you behave towards them, the assumptions you make about who they are and how they live, tells an awful lot about you.’ This is not the major message or theme of the book, but it’s a view seldom expressed so well in literature. I feel the need to mention it because of the problem it causes me as a review (and the joy it gave me as a reader), I won’t dwell on it though, to do so would negate the powerful point being made.
For Taylor, setting is just as important as character and is inextricably linked to plot. One of the things that made ‘The Shore’ such a wonderful read was the physical environment. The whole book is set within the same isolated West Virginian island and by the end of reading you feel like you’ve lived there too, as inescapably as the characters who share the claustrophobic landmass. As the maps on the cover of ‘The Lauras’ show, the geography of this new novel is on a whole other scale. Going broad rather than deep, the protagonists will trace their way across America as Taylor reworks the picaresque genre for the 21st century. The story begin when Ma scoops Alex up in the middle of the the night and two of them leave Alex’s father, home and, eventually, West Virginia on journey of unspecified length and destination.
‘The Lauras’ is a book about growing up, about the American landscape and about story telling. As the apparently aimless journey reveals itself as a series of quests, Alex starts to learn more about Ma’s troubled and restless past. Ma is a woman who started running away early. As a fourteen year old she first left home home to become a ranger; she only stayed away for one day, but her next attempt was more successful: ‘When they found her the second time she’d hiked nearly one hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail.’ Since then, Ma has become an expert at wandering, so much so, that it takes a while to see the pattern in her most recent journey. Pattern there is however, and it ties in closely with Ma’s own past.
With Alex as our mediator and Ma as our eccentric guide, the story told is unreliable, fantastical, dark, complex and utterly compelling. As with ‘The Shore’ there is much more to rave about than I can fit into sensible blog-post length. Instead I’ll have to satisfy myself with urging everyone to read it, and with hoping that Taylor will have another book out in 2017 that will be just as wonderful.