What does looking at a family tree tell us? We see ourselves linked by blood lines to a group of names, but usually there is little else to connect us to lives from the distant past other than an assemblage of faded photographs, a few heirlooms and a smattering of oral history. Rather than treat a family tree as a certainty, Sara Taylor does something quite extraordinary in her novel “The Shore” whereby she presents a family’s history as if the outcome of a family line was not the inevitability we see so neatly graphed out at the beginning of this book. The author jumbles all the pieces of one sprawling family tree up together like a jigsaw puzzle and delivers two centuries worth of tales about individuals leaping backwards and forwards in time. This effect says something much more meaningful about the will of the individual and the meaning of family connections than a straightforward linear novel could ever say. This is a family saga like none other I’ve read before.

As much as this novel is about family it is also about the land and the way in which the environment is shaped and reborn with every succeeding generation. An isolated small group of islands off the coast of Virginia is the base from which the stories of each character branch out from and round back to. It’s fascinating to see how the perilous course of the family blood line also follows the near destitution of the island itself as the economic circumstances change over time. In one memorable scene a boy watches as the community’s church is floated across the river after it is sold off by the fading population. When first confronted with the family tree at the beginning of the novel you’re aware that there are two distinct branches of the tree stemming from a single fascinating matriarch named Medora. The conflicted identity of this fiercely independent woman reverberates down through the generations. One line lives under perilous and desperate circumstances while another is more firmly established and prosperous. This is a family that is comprised of con artists, rapists, murderers, drug sellers and witch doctors. It’s high drama. Their stories make for an enthralling and emotionally compelling read.

As well as giving the reader a fascinating variety of lively stories, the novel makes larger meaningful statements about the plight of women. There is a great deal of sexism and violence exhibited by the men in this novel especially among the economically disadvantaged members of the family. It’s noted that it seems to be a tragic inevitability of a male’s development that “something happens in the gap between boy and man to turn all that sweetness bitter. You wonder if it’s a necessary hardening, like a tree’s shedding of leaves as winter approaches.” Certainly not all the male characters in this novel are villains and there is a balanced, complex view of both sex and sexuality here. But many female characters’ suffering is perpetrated by men who seek to dominant them. 

One generation of the family ferments apples to produce brandy in defiance of Prohibition laws.

One generation of the family ferments apples to produce brandy in defiance of Prohibition laws.

One of the most troubled and tragic characters named Ellie soberly remarks of her dangerous partner at one point: “He hates me and he wants me and he hates that he wants me.” As beset by some of the female characters become by their circumstances and the men they are with there is a knowledge gained from the next generation of women who take dramatic measures to ensure they aren’t entrapped by the same sexism that their mothers experienced. This effect is mirrored in both the start and end of the family line in a way which says something quite tragic about the persistent state whereby men will always try to control women despite the progression of society. Yet it also says something hopeful about the resilience and ingenuity with which bloodlines survive through the willpower of women.

Most of the stories which comprise this novel are firmly fixed in the nitty-gritty of life concerning work, love and establishing a family. But some of the tales dip into the fantastic so one woman is haunted by the spectres of ghostly boys that both threaten and support her. In another tale we learn about a secret talent of the family line for controlling and altering the weather. Sometimes the style feels like Charlotte Bronte and other times it’s reminiscent of a more modern sensibility like what's found in David Mitchell's writing. The narrative voice varies more wildly as some chapters stay inside a character’s uniquely-voiced point of view while other chapters are narrated from a more even-handed impersonal distance. I didn’t feel this was always successful particularly in a chapter told in the second person which had some very effective passages but became quite confused. Part of me wishes Taylor maintained a constant narrative style throughout the novel as it would seem less chaotic and make it easier to follow. However, part of the fun of this book is trying to locate who you are following now based on the date given and names around the characters involved. A reader’s participation is required. The book ends with an entirely new style of narration and takes the story into a whole other kind of genre that adds a level of poignancy when looking back on that initial family tree.