Sara 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.