When I read the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist last year, one of my favourite books was Sara Taylor’s novel “The Shore” a sprawling family epic centred on an island. It read like a fantastic jigsaw puzzle where you could piece together how a family was related by following their separate stories at different points over two centuries.
I was thrilled to receive her follow up novel “The Lauras” which is a very different kind of book but maintains her distinctly engrossing and insightful style of writing. It’s somewhat challenging to write about it because the novel’s narrator Alex, who is thirteen years old at the book’s beginning, doesn’t live as one gender or another. So it just presents a technical challenge where I have to use the joint pronouns she/he when referring to Alex. (This isn’t the novel’s fault but shows how gender divisions are so ingrained in our culture and language.) The novel begins when Alex is abruptly woken in the night by her/his parents’ fighting - unfortunately this isn’t unusual in Alex’s experience. But this time Alex’s mother comes into her/his room and abruptly takes Alex with her to run away. They embark on a journey across country which takes a number of years as Alex’s mother concludes unsettled business from her chequered past and forges new relationships. Meanwhile, Alex grows into an independent individual by making connections with a broad spectrum of people and experiencing adventures for her/himself. So this novel is a thrilling road trip story about a mother and her child on the run. It also says something deeply compelling about how we form fictitious and factual tales about our lives, challenges conventional notions about identity and how we define the concept of home.
The Lauras of the novel’s title are five different girls/women Alex’s mother knew over the course of her adolescence and teenage years – all of whom were named Laura. They all played an important role in her life as she tried to make her way in a difficult situation. Her parents were unstable and her home frequently shifted as she and her brother spent time in different care facilities. These Lauras are both distinct individuals and represent the crucial connections we make with people which help us find the right path in life. Alex remarks at one point: “you look back when you’re forty years old and realize that you have a long string of Lauras behind you who were all important, and it isn’t just coincidence but the eight-year-old you trying to fill in the hole that the first Laura made.” This is a meaningful statement that encapsulates how we seek out or are found by people with whom we form alliances in life that both inspire and challenge us in making crucial decisions about the future. Alex’s mother tells her/him stories about her life as they drive up, down and across America. So the mother’s recollection of the past is layered on top of the experiences they have revisiting significant places and individuals in a beautifully poignant way. Meanwhile, Alex pines for the father that she/he left behind and holds to the belief that they’ll be reunited - even as the years pass by while the mother and child occasionally move from state to state.
Recently I read Marilynne Robinson’s exquisitely beautiful novel “Housekeeping” but haven’t felt equipped to write about it on this blog yet. There are parallels between Robinson’s novel and this story in the way they challenge the idea of what a home is when the narrative of family is fractured. At an early point in Taylor’s novel Alex wants to know from his mother ““When are we going home?” I asked. “What is home?” she asked back... “That's a time, not a place. And time only goes one way.”” Although the mother was obviously in a difficult situation with Alex’s father, I couldn’t help feeling upset that Alex was so rashly pulled of the life that she/he knew for a constantly shifting/unstable life on the road. But gradually it becomes apparent that the connection that Alex and her/his mother share is the most important nurturing aspect of her/his life rather than the place they happen to be living in. The home we make or are born into can be a place where we can grow and thrive, but it can also be a kind of trap we must escape. It leads Alex to discover that “home for me was a place I was going to, rather than a place I could occupy.”
The fact of Alex’s gender neutrality is obviously something that is challenging to most people that she/he meets during their journey across the country. Alex’s physical features and clothing don’t immediately signal that Alex is a boy or girl. Alex’s doesn’t believe that she/he should have to choose a gender to live as so remains neutral allowing most people to look at her/him in a puzzled way and refer to Alex simply as “kid.” Alex reasons that “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.” The issue of whether Alex is male or female becomes most crucial when she/he enters high school where gender lines are more firmly drawn and Alex’s peers take a brutal bullying attitude when wanting to know the truth about what’s between Alex’s legs. They refer to Alex as “it.” The way which they need to define Alex as a girl or boy does say something significant about both their attitudes and our culture’s attitudes towards gender. Taylor presents Alex’s gender neutrality in a compelling way, especially in how Alex’s sexuality develops at this crucial time of life despite not specifically identifying as either a girl or boy.
Based on the “The Shore” and “The Lauras”, it’s interesting how Taylor’s narratives are made up of individual vignettes held together by overarching themes. This led some people to feel “The Shore” was more a group of short stories than a novel. “The Lauras” is more tightly held together as it is controlled by Alex’s narrative voice, but still amidst Alex’s journey there are the fascinating stories of many other people they meet along the way. This method of segmenting her novels into different stories might be inspired by the author’s mistrust of there being only one story: “it's so rare that reality rustles up a satisfying narrative shape, the edges rounded off and the ends tied up. It's rare that you get finality to things, the way we like our books and movies to end. Life so often goes flabby and peters out at the finish point instead of clicking satisfyingly, like the sound of a box being shut.” Like Alex’s gender, this novel doesn’t want to be limited to being only one thing which makes Taylor both an ambitious and fascinating writer. She is particularly good at portraying the lives of disadvantaged individuals hemmed in by the expectations of society. Flashes of violence appear throughout her sub-stories showing dramatic clashes between people who seek to control others and those who will fight to escape and survive. There are also moments of great tenderness and warmth. Sara Taylor is a gifted storyteller who threads thoughtful contemplations about life into her intelligent and beautiful writing.