The Shore by Sara Taylor

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Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

In Sara Taylor’s debut novel, ‘the Shore’ is the name given to a group of three islands off the coast of Virginia. It’s a flat, largely unadorned landscape:

We take the forces out of the hurricanes, grow so much food that a lot of it rots on the vine because there’s too much to pick or eat, but people say that the government doesn’t ever remember we’re here, that we get left off when they draw the maps. Accomack Island, the big one, is closest to the mainland, has edges laced with barrier islands that change shape and size with each passing storm, a highway up the middle with bridges to the mainland on the south and north ends, and little villages all the way up its length, and that’s the island we live on.

In other words, the Shore is a place of contradictions: part of the US yet fundamentally separate; islands of individual character with a strong collective identity; a land of both abundance and emptiness. The novel is structured in a similar way, as successive chapters of The Shore focus on different time periods and characters, gradually revealing the secrets behind the orderly-seeming family tree at the front.

The opening chapter, ‘Target Practice’, sets the broad tone of what is to come: it’s 1995, and thirteen-year-old Chloe Gordy is in the local store when she hears that a man has been murdered. She seems to take the news largely in her stride; but then, she can handle a gun herself. We see Chloe dealing with insults from other kids (by giving as good as she gets) and being the main person who looks after her younger sister Renee – before a confrontation with the girls’ violent father changes everything. Some of The Shore’s characteristic features are here already: strong narrative voices; a vivid sense of place; some surprising turns of plot; and female characters at centre stage.

As Taylor’s book progresses, the picture grows more complicated. Reaching back into the nineteenth century, we discover that the initial union of the two main families was founded on a sham, then torn apart by betrayal. Closer to the present day, we find relationships which are more complicated than we (and some of the characters) may at first have assumed. Taylor does a good job of drawing the secrets out, leaving the reader to piece things together (though some become abruptly, harrowingly clear). It’s still jarring when a life which may appear happy and full to an outside observer is shown to be something else when we join the character actually living that life.

The ending of The Shore is interesting, adding a new dimension to the book. Chloe Gordy returns to her home island in the penultimate chapter: it is fifteen years after the events of ‘Target Practice’, the place has rather gone to seed, and Chloe is looking for answers about her past. This chapter is the only direct ‘follow-on’ in the book, and being so close to the end, it works as the novel’s keystone, if you will. Chloe’s return home reveals some of the secrets which the attentive reader will already have worked out, and one might wish for a little more of the mystery to have been maintained. But this chapter does underline some of the novel’s key themes of place and belonging:

What matters is that I have the stars, the smudge of the barrier islands again, that I can trace the Milky Way, that my feet remember the shape of this land. That for right now they’re all mine.

Yet, as the qualification in Chloe’s last sentence there implies, nothing stands still. Her second chapter ends with a prediction that a new pandemic is coming; either side of that chapter are two set in the future, where we see the effects of the disease. The Shore’s final chapter jumps forward to 2143, where people use the kind of vernacular which suggests that the old systems of education and knowledge have largely (though not entirely) been undermined, and an oral culture now dominates:

Da had been drowned when Wol was in his walking year, going after fish on the bank of the changeable sea. Mam hadn’t lasted too much longer, just until Wol got to be some use around the place. Byandby, he became the leader ‘n’ I the follow-after, and the plot what usual goes to firstborn went to him.

Despite how much has changed in that time – how much more firmly a line has been drawn under the past than was the case with the previous hundred years in the novel – what this chapter ultimately suggests is that life and family persist on the Shore. For all the transformations of three centuries, the fundamental stories remain.

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David blogs at David’s Book World.

Sara Taylor, The Shore (William Heinemann: London, 2015). 978-0434023097, 304pp., hardback.

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