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.