The Shore by Sara Taylor: The whole being greater than its parts

The Shore I’ve had my eyes on Sara Taylor’s beautifully packaged debut for some time now. It’s not just the gorgeous jacket that attracted me, it’s also the novel’s structure: a set of interconnecting stories that span a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia. The Shore is the name given to the islands, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and Taylor’s novel focuses on the two families who dominate them – one impoverished the other prosperous – both intertwined through marriage.

It begins in 1995 with a story narrated by thirteen-year-old Chloe – the end of which will take your breath away – then crisscrosses through time from the founding of the families in 1876, ending in 2143. Much of the narrative takes place in the twentieth century as the islands slide into decline, the only source of work the chicken slaughterhouse with its all-pervasive stink. It becomes the kind of place where shacks ‘could be toolsheds or could be meth labs, you can’t tell until one blows up’. Fortunes are made and lost, children born, marriages made, blind eyes are turned – people leave but despite its disadvantages the Shore lures many back with its beauty and a sense of belonging. Rather like Judy Chicurel’s If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go, these stories are so closely interlinked that despite its determinedly non-linear narrative the book is very much a novel rather than a collection.

It’s an ambitious structure for a debut, but Taylor keeps the many strands of her narrative pleasingly under control so that what could have been a baggy, rambling mishmash gels nicely. You need to keep your wits about you: characters pop up then disappear only to reappear again. You’ll find yourself frequently consulting the family tree that prefaces the novel but Taylor is careful to tie in every loose end meticulously. There’s a good deal of violence – some of it graphic – and much of it against women but these are strong, resilient women who find ways to deal with what is meted out to them. It’s also about decline, the way in which communities dwindle when economic hardship hits and young people are drawn out of them. If this all sounds a little hard-going, a little worthy – it’s not: Taylor’s writing is striking, her characters believable and her storytelling entrancing. I would have preferred that the novel had remained bookended by Chloe’s narrative but others may feel that the final chapter is part of the point. Either way, The Shore is thoroughly deserving of its place on the Baileys longlist. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find it shortlisted.

19 thoughts on “The Shore by Sara Taylor: The whole being greater than its parts”

  1. I very much enjoyed this too, although I wasn’t convinced the structure quite worked, although I can forgive that for the ambition and the writing. I read it without the family tree though, so I wonder how much difference that made and whether it contributed to my feeling that one particular story was out of place.

    1. I wonder which story it was that you felt didn’t work. I wasn’t at all happy with the ending although obviously can’t discuss that here but I did feel that it was very much more tightly controlled than Cloud Atlas to which it’s been compared.

      1. It was the apples. It felt like a jolt at that point where it seemed to have got into some sort of rhythm and then that story and the character in it didn’t connect to anything before – I know it connects to the end but I’m thinking as I’m writing this that we’ve probably got a similar issue with it, actually.

        I can see why it was compared to Cloud Atlas but I don’t agree with the comparison. Mitchell says he writes interlinked novellas, this is woven very differently. (Cloud Atlas is one of my Favourite books so I shall say no more!)

        1. Yes, I think we’re agreed on The Shore (without going into too much spoiling detail) but not on Cloud Atlas! I preferred Ghostwritten.

  2. I’ve been so intrigued by the structure of this one it was one of my off-the-tbr20-wagon buys – really looking forward to reading it in light of this & Naomi’s review…

  3. I enjoyed this book too ….I thought the used of snapshots was a very effective way of giving us a ‘360’ over the generations . I have to say that I didn’t really enjoy the future stuff as much and wish she’d just kept to the present and past which I thought worked much better . There’s so much dystopian , or as it seems we must now call it speculative fiction around at the moment . It does all get a bit tired and predictable after a while !

    1. Absolutely agree with your comment on dystopian fiction, Helen. I think Chloe’s narrative should have marked the end of the novel.

  4. This sounds like one of the most interesting and ambitious debuts I’ve come across in recent months. I too had seen (or heard) it compared to Cloud Atlas, so it’s good to read the comments here.

    The cover is a thing of beauty, isn’t it? It would catch my eye in a bookshop.

    1. Its lovely, just right for the book. I thought it was much more tightly controlled than Cloud Atlas. Not perfect – I think Helen and I are agreed on the dystopian elements – but very fine indeed.

  5. I got as far as interconnecting stories and was already sold that alongside believable characters and entrancing storytelling had me completely convinced. An excellent review of a great sounding book.

    1. Thank you, Cleo. I loved it with a single reservation which is pretty damn good for a debut, I think.

  6. I’ve seen this around a lot, and am hoping to hear the author speak at the Cambridge literary festival in a couple of weeks. I’ll definitely be reading this. And having reminded me, I’ve now added the Judy Chicurel to my wish list, too. I think the interlinked short story collection is an intriguing structure.

    1. I think it can work very well when controlled tightly. I first came across the structure with Melissa Banks’ The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing which I enjoyed very much.

      It would be fascinating to hear about the ideas that sparked The Shore. Perhaps you’ll write a post on it?

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