I’ve just finished reading, The Shore, Sara Taylor’s debut novel, which isn’t really a novel, but a collection of interwoven short stories.
The book is set on a group of islands off the coast of Virginia. Its characters are all blood relations, but their stories span a timescale of more than a century; the earliest set in 1876 and the final tale set in the future, 2143.
Sara Taylor writes very well, and The Shore has received rave reviews, but this ‘novel’ feels like it was written by someone who does not yet have the literary muscle to sustain the novel form. You could argue that it is experimental and that I’m being a stick in the mud, but I don’t think that putting a family tree at the beginning of the book is enough to make it a cohesive entity.
It isn’t that I can’t cope with multiple viewpoints. I’ve just read The Last Station by Jay Parini, which also uses this device to good effect and Last Exit to Brooklyn is one of my favourite books. In fact, The Shore reminds me a little of Hubert Selby Jnr’s novel in its grim depiction of a desperate community, only Last Exit to Brooklyn has ten times the emotional impact. It also put me in mind of Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, which also focuses on multiple narratives within one family.
The jacket blurb tells us that Taylor is a product of the UEA creative writing faculty, which has no doubt influenced her work. In order to flag up her literary kudos and experimental style she tackles magical realism, as well as dirty realism, and one of the stories even employs the rarely used second-person narrative. However, I don’t think this works, nor was Taylor able to make the nineteenth century stories seem convincingly of their period – they started well, but the Victorian facade soon slipped.
The Shore‘s setting is the star of the novel and Taylor is in her element when in descriptive mode; she draws out the unique atmosphere of the place through her evocation of the topographical features of the Virginian landscape, as well as the man-made encroachments on the island, such as the foul-smelling chicken processing plants.
The ‘killing floor’ is mentioned on a number of occasions, in relation to these factory farms, and murder and domestic violence are also key elements of the novel. Death clings to these pages, like the stench of the hatcheries and processing plants, which edges this book into the Southern Gothic. However, it’s as though Taylor only wanted to dip her toe in the water and she never fully submerges her writing into any genre; which is, I suppose, quite Postmodern. Had she concentrated more on what she is good at, creating mise en scene, then this would be a far more engaging and coherent collection of tales.
As it is, rape, sexual coercion, and male violence against women is the main unifying theme. If I was a man reading the novel, I would probably be quite offended on behalf of my sex. With a couple of exceptions, men are unrelentingly awful; bullying, sexually abusive, feckless misogynists. Mind you, the women aren’t particularly likeable either. To be honest, I found it difficult to give a toss about any of them!
If my thoughts seem entirely negative, then there is plenty of positive feedback on Goodreads which I would suggest looking at. I’m quite often out of step with public opinion. I think that Sara Taylor is obviously very talented and a writer to watch; I just feel a little cheated by her publishers. Perhaps short story collections don’t sell very well and so they’ve branded this as a novel. I wish that they’d waited for her writing to mature before publishing her debut, because this is not the tour de force it should have been.