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. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSara Taylor

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.