The Shore – Sara Taylor

The Shore is as flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow, and usually you can just about see the dark smear that is Chincoteague Island off to the northeast. We are one of three islands, off the coast of Virginia and just south of Maryland, trailing out into the Atlantic Ocean like someone’s dripped paint. We take the force out of 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 the government doesn’t ever remember we’re here, that we get left off when they draw the big maps.

The Shore begins in 1995 when Chloe, 13, is out buying chicken necks to use for crabbing. Chloe overhears a customer and the cashier discussing the murder of Cabel Bloxom. He’s ‘ “had his face shot to pieces”…[and] “They done cut his thang clean off!” ‘ By the middle of the chapter we know who’s shot him and why; by the end of the chapter there’s a second killing. It’s an explosive and shocking start to the book but the scenarios that surround both killings are sadly all too familiar.

Chloe, her younger sister, Renee, and their father live in a small house on Accomack Island, the largest of the three islands that make up The Shore.

It’s a little house, our house, one room downstairs and two rooms upstairs and a porch for each, and according to the phone company and the electric company and the taxman it doesn’t exist.

They’re poor. The girls are crabbing because there’s no food in the house. Their father works on the killing floor at one of the chicken plants because it’s the only work available. Their childhood is brutal – more so because they’re girls.

But this isn’t Chloe and Renee’s story; it’s the story of two families and the islands from 1876 to 2143.

In thirteen connected stories, Taylor tells us of women who leave and return, who can control the weather, who are smart and fight for their freedom from men, who find ways to survive despite the brutality that’s inflicted upon them. They’re tales of family and survival.

What’s most impressive about the book is the way Taylor moves between different characters and stories, making them and their voices unique. She experiments with different types of story telling – moving between past and present tense, using conventions of different genres. It’s this that’s led to the book being compared to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which – and I say this as a huge fan of David Mitchell’s work – does Taylor a disservice; she nods to different genres rather than immersing the stories in them and the links between the tales are much subtler and require more work from the reader than those in Cloud Atlas. One of the joys of the book is working out how the characters link together.

However, on occasion, this is also the book’s downfall. There was one story in particular which seemed out of place and although at the end of the novel, it’s clearly connected, it took me out of the story and the atmosphere created before that point.

Regardless, The Shore is an impressive debut. It shows Taylor has an ability to write many different stories – there is no lack of ambition here and that more than makes up for any perceived shortcomings.

Fellow shadow Bailey’s Prize panel member Eric has also reviewed The Shore on his blog.

Thanks to William Heinemann for the review copy.

0 thoughts on “The Shore – Sara Taylor

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  2. I like the idea of a novel being connected stories – especially tackling different styles & genre… also having to work out how the characters connect. Nice cover too.

  3. I’m really excited about this one and hope to get to it soon. I grew up in Maryland not far from the Chesapeake Bay, so I know that area pretty well. In my head I had this classed under “short stories” but you (and Bailey’s) consider it a novel. What do you think makes the categorical difference when the stories are linked? [I’ll be sure to follow up with what you’ve written here when I’ve actually read it!]

    • That is excited, it’ll be interesting to see whether the depiction of the area seems realistic to you.

      As for whether it’s a novel, my cheeky answer would be ask the marketing team! I honestly don’t have a straightforward answer for this – I thought This Beautiful published last year was definitely short stories marketed as a novel (the writer said they were short stories too!); Cloud Atlas David Mitchell says is a series of novellas, as is The Bone Clocks. I think the difference with The Shore is that you could probably reorder the stories and make a novel with a few leaps. The links are there and there are two sections of the family – Renee, Chloe and their parents and Medora, the matriarch of both sides – whose stories Taylor keeps circling back to. That’s the best I can do!

      Look forward to your views.

      • I finally got around to reading this one and really enjoyed it. My favourite of the stories were about Medora. I’m curious which one you thought was out of place…

  4. Like Rebecca, I also really want to read this, in part because I grew up in Virginia myself and had grandparents living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland! It seems a natural contemporary extension of the amazing Southern Gothic tradition that encompasses Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor…can’t wait!

    • I look forward to hearing what you think. I saw the Guardian review placed it – initially at least – in the Southern Gothic tradition. I haven’t read enough to say how it fits but it definitely moves beyond it into dystopia.

    • I just realised you’re Eleanor from Quadrapheme 🙂 Didn’t know you were American, too! I do the drive across the Bay Bridge to Salisbury once or twice a year to visit friends. It felt so strange, and refreshing, to read about those places in a novel.

      • Haha, yes! Oh, bookish connections. I’m half-American really (quite particular!) but I grew up in the States so the accent betrays me. As I get older, I miss the area more and more, though 🙂

  5. I like your closing comments, Naomi. It’s good to see a writer being ambitious and taking a few risks, even if it results in one or two potential glitches. It sounds like exactly the sort of novel that should be getting attention.

    • I think so. It’s also cleverer than it appears on the surface, I think, which is also a good thing. It wear the changes in genre and voice lightly even though they’re technically challenging. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

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