Book review: The Shore

American Sara Taylor has, at 24, written a startling debut. Billy O’Callaghan discovers a writer eager to push the boundaries of fiction in a moving but frightening way.

Book review: The Shore

Sara Taylor

William Heinemann, €19.50;

ebook, €10.99 

THE first thing you find upon opening Sara Taylor’s sprawling debut novel, The Shore, is a large, cluttered family tree that charts the lineage of two distantly-connected family lines.

The reader will return again and again to this invaluable chart over the course of the book, because the 13 chapters, laid out in non-linear fashion and framed as standalone stories, span nearly 300 years of a shared and convoluted history.

The shore in question is a remote piece of Virginia’s eastern coastline, the Delmarva peninsula, bordering Chesapeake Bay, and its scattering of islands, most notably Assateague and Chincoteague, places famed for their scenic splendour, wildness and feral horses.

“It’s a place that my family moved to when I was a teenager, and just sort of discovering myself as a person,” Sara says, speaking by phone, fresh from a bookshop signing.

“When I got there, I was struck by how much like home it felt, and it still is the place that feels like home when I think about going back to the United States.

It is so vibrant, an intense, natural place... utterly beautiful. I’ve wanted for a long time to be able to write about it, and I’ve had a lot of difficulty bringing across the sense of place, up until this point.”

This brutal, compelling novel uses the harshness of such landscape, marked by that relentless clash between ocean and shore, to explore and make sense of inner and far more damaged territories.

The characters who populate these pages, young and old and existing in varying eras, are people of instinct rather than intellect, wild as Atlantic storms and driven by primal, even bestial, needs.

For some, it’s a desperation to be loved, and to belong; for others, it’s escape. These tales gain much of their horrific pulse from visceral depictions of murder, rape and infidelity, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and some of the bloodiest imaginable manners of revenge, but the stories also explore hearts in trauma and attempt to spin a sense of humanity into the most barbaric of situations.

The Shore reads like a collection of inextricably linked short stories, and the sense of unity is a critical detail, because the circumstances presented in these apparently random glimpses of the ‘present’ are shaped largely by sins of the past and inherited sorrows.

The past haunts the here and now, and characters who might have seemed two-dimensional within the context of a single story somehow gain by osmosis from the greater scale.

“I needed to write a dissertation for my bachelor’s degree,” Sara says.

“And I was told it had to be in short stories. But I wanted to write a novel, so I decided to see if I could write a novel in pieces,” she says.

“Everyone seems to think short stories and novels are so different, but I was wondering if there was a point where they might intersect, or if there was a way to write something that was just on the edge between them, that could do the things we love about short stories and also the things that we love about novels,” she says.

The first chapter, Target Practice, gets proceedings underway in fine style, with an intriguing plot, assured narrative voice, a great opening hook and an explosive finale.

While shopping for chicken pieces that she and her younger sister, Renee, can use as bait for crabs, 13 year-old Chloe overhears a piece of gossip, detailing the recent murder, and emasculation, of a local sexual predator named Cable Bloxom.

Walking home she is set upon by some local children, but she has long since learned about fighting to win. Growing up in a house of methamphetamine addiction, the girls live in constant dread.

They’ve already lost their mother, and their father has a violent temper. And then a complainant comes knocking, one of the local women demanding satisfaction for the hurt caused to her son.

“I started with the first chapter because I knew that wanted to write about Chloe, and then once I’d written about Chloe I realised that there were stories about her relatives and friends, people that had known her, that I needed to write about as well.

“So I wound up with a collection of different voices and different experiences, and tried to put them together in a way that would slowly connect up into something that was bigger than each one individually,” she says.

The book’s stories come thick and fast, heedless of order. The beginning, chronologically, at least, reverts back to 1876, and Medora, an illegitimate young half-breed Shawnee raised cruelly by a rich, drunken father, who conceives a plan of escape, with the help of a conman named Andrew Day.

Before leaving, she exacts revenge by gelding the old man’s stallion and by lacing one of his bottles with chloral hydrate to hurry him into his grave. Pairing with Andrew will prove a mistake too, and will cost her most of the skin on her body, but it is they who settle on The Shore and set about creating the bloodlines.

At the other extreme, in 2143, a time after the fever, Simian, a halfman mutant-type “quick in the head but not in body”, discovers the remnants of a still, and trades “tears of the gods” for one of the ‘lovelies’, Jillet, daughter of the island’s Keeper.

In between, a man helps his sister deal with the mess when her husband runs up huge gambling debts to gangsters.

Another hides out with his girlfriend at a mountain cabin after the police have picked up their dealer. A boy is drawn into a Prohibition-era moonshine operation.

In the relatively near future, a promiscuous carrier of a deadly virus desperately searches for males related to her dead boyfriend, the love of her life, so that she can become pregnant with ‘his’ child.

And, in what might be the book’s most shocking set-piece, a young woman, Ellie, who has been working construction with a small crew, is gang-raped by her workmates after a few drunken hours of payday cards. The assault is initiated by Bo, the man she’ll end up marrying. They’ll have two daughters, Chloe and Renee.

“There were different impulses behind different sections,” the author says.

“Target Practice, was written because I was thinking about my sister and wondering really how far someone might go to protect a younger sister. And that question led to other questions. How far would we go to take care of our family, how far would we go to be able to live the sort of life that we want to live,” she says.

At just 24, Sara Taylor is a precocious talent. Virginia-born and now based in Norwich, she completed an MA in prose fiction at the University of East Anglia and is working towards a double-focus PhD in censorship and fiction.

With The Shore just announced as part of the 20-strong longlist for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), she seems set for a stellar literary career. And there’s more to come:

“I’ve finished a draft, a second revision, of another novel that starts in Virginia but then goes back and forth across the US. It’s about a woman and her daughter, who are travelling back through the places that she’s lived, trying to tie up loose ends from her life.

It’s far enough along that I can say it’s most definitely a novel. It’s all in one voice and it is linear, so it’s quite different from The Shore, but the voice of the narrator — it’s narrated by the woman’s child — strikes me as quite similar to Chloe’s voice.”

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