The Lauras by Sara Taylor: One name, many stories

Cover imageSara Taylor’s debut, The Shore, was a masterclass in storytelling: a set of stories spanning a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia which were so closely interconnected that it read like a novel. The Lauras is also stuffed full of stories as Alex looks back on two years spent on the road as an adolescent. As they criss-cross the USA, Alex’s mother tells stories about her life before Alex, packed with adventure and misadventure. Alex is determinedly androgynous, unwilling to be assigned to either gender. This as you can imagine makes writing a synopsis well-nigh impossible so, for the sake of my sanity if nothing else and because I’m a woman, I’m going to refer to Alex using female personal pronouns. Clearly, identity is something Taylor wants her readers to think about.

Alex is thirteen when she’s hauled out of bed in the middle of the night, half-way through yet another noisy parental row. She’s packed into the car along with the barest essentials and driven off, not entirely sure what’s happening. Shortly after they set off, Alex’s mother withdraws wads of cash from an ATM, cuts up her credit cards and tosses her phone out of the car window leaving Alex under no illusion that she wants to be found. So begins a two-year odyssey during which Alex’s education is completed, both school and otherwise, while her mother works to keep them afloat. Each year they travel further along the yellow-highlighted map that Alex finds when her mother is out at work annotated with cryptic messages – ‘dead girl found in bath tub’; ‘crazy Laura, kissing Laura’ and the more prosaic ‘where I learned to drive’ – amongst the many ‘group home’ and ‘foster home’ locations where Alex’s mother grew up. At each destination, scores are settled, longstanding promises fulfilled and debts repaid. Alex misses her father, surreptitiously sending him postcards when she can. When, finally, they reach their destination, Alex must make a decision.

Alex tells her own story – niftily avoiding any shenanigans with that personal pronoun – making sure to remind us now and again that she’s an unreliable narrator, that her memory may be faulty, that the past is just another story we tell ourselves. She’s a convincing character, often uncomfortable in her adolescent skin yet engaging and sometimes funny. Taylor’s writing is every bit as striking as it was in The Shore: ‘because I had chosen to give chase, sleep stuck its thumb out, leaving me still on the hard ground, listening to the hum of cars go past’ thinks Alex trying to sleep rough after an unhappy hitchhiking incident. The stories Alex’s mother tells are vivid and riveting, revealing a life far more eventful that Alex could ever have imagined. Throughout it all runs the theme of identity – Alex’s determined decision not to identify as male or female, her mother’s sexual ambiguity and rootlessness – all handled with an enviable deftness. There’s always a little apprehension when picking up a second novel by an author whose first is as entrancing as The Shore was for me but The Lauras more than lives up to that promise.

14 thoughts on “The Lauras by Sara Taylor: One name, many stories”

    1. Definitely felt a little apprehensive about starting this one after such an excellent debut but it’s just as good if not better.

  1. I just finished reading this. Great book, very well executed. Like you, I picked up on the theme of identity which seems to pervade the whole book, but all wrapped up in vivid, believable characters. I may have to go back and read The Shore, which I still haven’t got around to (story of my reading life!). Great review Susan.

    1. Thanks, Belinda, and glad to hear that you enjoyed it, too. The gender issue brought me up short about half-way through the novel when Alex becomes more emphatic about it. I had to go back and re-examine my assumptions which I imagine was exactly what Taylor wants her readers to do. You have a treat in store with The Shore.

  2. I’m so glad to hear this lives up to your expectations! I love the idea of a mother/daughter road trip (sketchy or not). And the gender ambiguity is intriguing as well.
    I better get reading The Shore, so I’ll be ready when The Lauras makes it to this side of the ocean!

    1. I think you’d like it, Naomi. The gender identity issue is handled beautifully – brings you up short and makes you think.

      I hope you’ve been enjoying summer!

  3. The Shore has been on my radar since it was longlisted for the Orange Prize, but I don’t think I properly recognized that it’s a collection of linked stories (once of my favourite things). Now I’m doubly intrigued, and also by your sense that this book equals/perhaps even surpasses her debut. Lovely!

    1. They’re so closely interlinked that they read like a novel to me, albeit one that jumps about all over the place chronologically. It’s so often the case that a second novel fails to live up to an excellent first but I’m pleased to report that’s not the case with this one. I hope you get around to both of them.

  4. This is such a thoughtful and beautifully written review. The Lauras has been hovering at the edges of my reading radar (mostly thanks to that gorgeous cover), but now I’m properly intrigued!

  5. Very interesting premise, and both the title and the name of the author ring a bell. Now that I’m reading more general fiction I think I’m adding this to my wishlist.

    1. It’s one of those titles that’s been much talked about, Elena, and deservedly so. Her debut is well worth seeking out, too.

  6. Pingback: On the Road with Ma: The Lauras by Sara Taylor – Bookish Beck

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