The Shore, by Sara Taylor, is a set of stories about a place and the people who live there. The location is ‘a collection of islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean’. The residents who populate the tales have lived on these islands for generations, with many struggling against poverty and addiction. Each of the thirteen interconnected chapters tells of a significant moment in the characters’ lives, between 1885 and 2143. These snapshots enable the reader to better understand the consequences of actions and decisions on those who were there, and on their descendants. Inheritance is shown to be more than genes and material possessions.
The story opens in 1995. Two little girls, Chloe and Renee, are finding ways to survive the neglect of their drug addicted, violent father. His is not the only abuse they have suffered. They have witnessed a murder and will have their futures forever changed by another. Their travels and travails offer cultural and geographic insight into the land that forms the backbone of the subsequent stories.
The second chapter is set in 1933. Mark is rolling in the hay with Letty, his true love, who married another. Their liaisons will lead to public recriminations and estrangements. Their love child will not love the life they give her. Parenting styles may have an impact but are no guarantee of an offspring’s behaviour.
As each set of characters was introduced I referred back to the useful family tree provided at the beginning of the book. This is a necessary addition as background is touched on lightly. The reader is trusted to remember what has already been revealed.
In 1992 Sally is remembering the first storm she conjured and how her grandfather warned her of the dangers of controlling weather. Now Grandpa Tom lives in a Rest Home, paid for by the remaining cousins in their sprawling family. Sally recalls the wider family history. It is filled with runaways, broken marriages, unwanted pregnancies and unhappy children. Grandpa Tom’s grandmother, Medora, provided the inheritance that bought the land and built the still enduring family home. Medora’s story is further explored in the following chapter.
As well as the ties of family and place there is an inherent sadness linking the characters introduced. Despite this and the recurring violence – psychological as well as physical – the writing is evocative and lyrical. The Shore is presented as a challenging place but one that exerts a hold on those raised in its environs.
A later chapter jumps into the future when the human race is threatened by a sexually transmitted virus. A survivor, Tamara, has hidden herself from society in the house where Chloe and Renee once lived. Tamara is desperate for a baby but is a carrier for the disease, something she refuses to believe. She seeks out a mate, an apocalypse disciple who can’t believe his good fortune at her willingness to have sex. The consequences for all are devastating.
The final chapter is set further into the future when the diminished population has stabilised and a new societal structure developed. Some of the babies born have grown into ‘halfmen’ who get by on subsistence living. One of these narrates the story of how he won himself a woman. The circle of life turns.
At the heart of these tales is a desire for autonomy in a world where race, gender, age, ability and wealth dictate accepted freedoms. Although each character has struck out to gain what they desire the cost has been great, the reverberations unanticipated. Ever after is shown to be a delusion with the inevitable clouds intercepting any sunbeams of hard won happiness.
A beautifully written if somewhat doleful saga populated by the flawed, wicked and foolish as well as those whose motives are more supportive. I could happily have read more about any of the varied characters featured. By keeping it concise the author never for a moment lost this reader’s engagement.