THE SHORE. By Sara Taylor. Hogarth. 320 pages. $25.
In creative writing classes students are taught to start stories with a “hook” or a statement that grabs the reader’s attention. Writers realize they have mere seconds to peak the reader’s interest before she reaches for her phone. First time novelist Sara Taylor doesn’t have to worry because she hooks us from the start.
“When news of the murder breaks I’m in Matthew’s, buying chicken necks so my little sister Renee and I can go crabbing. There isn’t much in the way of food in the house, but we found a dollar and sixty-three cents in change, and decided free crabs would get us the most food for that money. Usually we use bacon rinds for bait, but we’ve eaten those already.”
Who wouldn’t keep reading? Chloe is on the verge of adolescence and lives on an isolated island on the eastern shore of Virginia, a place that is “flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow.” After her mother is killed, she is left to fend for her herself and her younger sister, and that means avoiding run-ins with their drug-addicted father. Violence is woven throughout this story and by the end of the first chapter we learn more about the murder.
“The Shore” is a series of interwoven narratives that moves through time from 1933 to 2143 and tells the story of the people who make their home on these forgotten islands. Part Southern Gothic and part dystopian novel, Taylor’s beautifully crafted stories of darkness and light are unique and reveal a depth of imagination that seems to belong to a much older writer.
Within each story are fascinating characters who rise above the constraints of life on the island to create worlds where they are safe from the challenges that threaten them. One of them is 6-year-old Sally, who knows she will never leave the island, even after her grandfather’s offer of a college education. “She liked to think that she felt even more deeply the thrum of the tide in her veins, the pulse of the land, that the islands were more hers, and she more part of them, than any of the other souls who called them home could ever be.”
Taylor’s storytelling is not limited by the confines of logic, and we pay close attention when Sally tells us the story of her grandfather teaching her to “pull the wind” with her hands. Sally learns to develop this gift and discovers that she can reach her hands above her head and control the weather, calming it down and riling it up as people needed. We meet Sally again toward the end of the book as an older woman whose unusual gift keeps her safe from the disease and destruction that come to the island.
Even with the family tree at the beginning of the novel and the inclusion of the year at the beginning of each chapter, it’s easy to get confused. The publisher describes the style as “interconnecting narratives,” which is neither a collection of short stories nor a standard novel. This unique approach provides a deeper understanding of the island and its inhabitants, but also slows the reader as she reorients herself in each chapter.
My biggest complaint with interconnected narratives is that they tend to disrupt certain characters’ story lines. In “The Shore,” I wanted to stick with Chloe and Renee because they were such compelling characters, and was disappointed when I was diverted to another storyline.
Taylor keeps us reading, however, because she reminds us that light and dark are a part of human nature. This is not a happy-ever-after novel; rather, it is a dreamy, magical story of people and how they persevere.
Reviewer Amy Mercer is marketing and communications manager at the Gibbes Museum of Art.