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The Lauras Paperback – 6 Apr 2017
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"Sara Taylor’s The Lauras just persuaded me even more that Taylor is a writer of real gravitas and potency. It feels, to read her, uncanny – a bit reminiscent of reading early Atwood three decades ago. She’s a writer whose talent, a fusion of sure-footed, calm and uncompromising, is both quiet and prodigious." (Ali Smith Guardian, 'Best Books of 2016')
"Elegiac and beautifully observed… Our sympathies remain with the narrator throughout. Scenes of violence, abuse and ritual humiliation are described in such visceral detail that the injustice of Alex’s experience burns on to the page … Taylor has a great ear for language, with the kind of sentences that make you pause and read a second time … It is such acute observations of her imaginary world that saw Taylor’s debut novel, The Shore longlisted for the Bailey’s prize, and it should be no great surprise to find her second novel following in its footsteps … At the heart of the novel’s themes of family, love, loss, and identity – not to mention the power, destruction and redemption within the parent-child relationship – is a meditation on gender: on our determination to define and categorise, and on the need by some to belittle or abuse based on that distinction." (Observer)
"A strong voice ... both lyrical and down-to-earth ...Taylor’s sense of place is one of her greatest strengths. She writes about versions of America that few outsiders ever see ... There is nothing gratuitous about her writing. All of these places are there because they matter and because being in them changes the characters or reveals their histories ... An extraordinary journey ... There’s violence and pain in The Lauras ... The Lauras is a fine achievement, engrossing, original and eloquent, and Taylor has more than fulfilled the promise of The Shore." (Helen Dunmore Guardian)
"Sara Taylor’s tour-de-force debut, The Shore, was an intriguing set of interlocked short stories, spanning generations and crossing genres … She more than keeps the promise of The Shore in The Lauras. If there is one significant difference it is that The Shore was fiercely bound to a place, whereas The Lauras is a road trip ricocheting around North America. It is a road trip of both inner space and outer vistas … Alex does not identify as either sex, nor gender. If you re-read this review at this point you will see how I avoided using a pronoun that might indicate a specificity that Alex renounces. The book does this brilliantly … It is exceptionally moving, and the novel it reminded me of most is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, not in terms of structure or intent or sentences, but in beguiling the reader into identifying with someone they thought they couldn’t … On the way, Alex will be tormented, abused, adored and ignored. Some of these scenes are gut-wrenching; some of them are quietly beautiful. Taylor’s prose is remarkable; both intense and expansive, both precise and wonderfully sfumato … The writing about Alex exploring different wildernesses is astonishing; the pages about Alex masturbating – and let’s remember we do not and cannot know what is actually going on – are in a strange way sublime … A joy." (Stuart Kelly The Scotsman)
"A beautiful, irreverent meditation of self, sexuality and growing up. On each stop of the trip is a woman named Laura. Each has played a part in Alex’s mother’s fractured past, and together they reveal how many people we sometimes need to make a love story." (Heather O'Neill, author of 'Lullabies for Little Criminals')
About the Author
Sara Taylor was born and raised in rural Virginia. She has a BFA from Randolph College and an MA in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia. She is currently chipping away at a double-focus PhD in censorship and fiction at UEA. She spends her time between Norwich and Reading. The Shore, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. In 2015, Sara was shortlisted for the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award.
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I knew from the first line of the first chapter that I was going to enjoy this novel. The storyline was going to be secondary to me, the thing I knew I was going to enjoy was the writing. From the opening, I was caught up by Taylor's stunning prose and elegant writing.
"I could hear them arguing......... I could feel one doing like the promise of a storm thickening the air........I listened to the rise and fall of their voices for hours some nights, for as long as it took for them to gradually calm."
But this night, when the voices went from "full pitch to silent in a moment", Alex knew something was wrong. Her mother is suddenly at her door, dragging her out of bed, into the car and driving away from the house and Alex's father.
"That twenty-four hours, starting with the moment we left home, was burned into my memory. ..... I can't forget the grease and the smoke, the flannel on the skin, the fear of realising that my life was taking a ninety-degree turn."
And off they go. Ma and Alex. On a journey from Virginia to California, to the places Ma had lived as child and as a teenager; places she lived in foster care, run away from and places full of secrets that only now was she ready to share with her daughter. Her mother is going to "write in the details" as if the "stories had finally backed up in her and she had to let them out."
Told from Alex's point of view this is as much her mother's story as Alex's. Alex's observations and insights about her mother are poignant, often revealing a troubled person and someone who has suffered trauma, but always utterly exquisitely conveyed with beautiful description and imagery. I could not help but become enraptured with both characters and totally absorbed in their journey - both physical and emotionally. Even though Alex is 13 and her mother's daughter, Taylor manages the narrative in such a way that it is effective and works very well. It feels authentic and real.
I felt great empathy for Ma as her past was revealed and the obstacles she has overcome explained. Although she has taken Alex away from their family home, and then often leaves her for hours in small, cheap accommodation while she goes off to work, and although she uproots Alex again and again as their journey requires, she is a character who evokes sympathy and interest. A lot of her past is told to us through Alex as she recounts the stories her mother is now choosing to share about her life but this cleverly seems to create a closeness to both characters rather than any sense of distance or that we are learning things too vicariously. To be honest I was so mesmerised by the prose I was completely carried along anyway and just couldn't help but keep highlighting passages of writing that I found truly striking.
The Lauras is just as much of a coming of age story about Alex too. This drive across the states with her mother is just as much an emotional journey for Alex as it is her mother and just as much a revelation and learning for her character as it is her mothers. There is so much in this book about fitting in, hiding and disguising yourself, wanting to belong and wanting to shield yourself that there are pages and pages of pertinent, insightful, well written observations and comments about people and the relationships formed between them. And Alex is a dignified, thoughtful, reflective narrator whose expression is remarkable and arresting. Her descriptions of the people she meets - particularly at school - are vivid.
"[They] talked over each other until their voices blended together in a counterpoint of contradiction."
And then there are the Lauras; Ma's friends and the people who have had pivotal roles in her life or been at her side during significant moments in her childhood, teenage and adult life.
"Why do all the women in your stories have the same name?" Alex asks as we meet more and more of these Lauras over the course of the novel. Ma's reply is lengthy and detailed, but it is very moving too and more a description of how influential friendships and people can be at particular moments in your life. It reveals even more about the holes in Ma's life, the emptiness, the emotional deprivation and the constant search to recreate something meaningful with people. Taylor uses the Lauras to contemplate the effect of loss and the way in which perhaps our mind seeks out connections it thinks will bring it happiness and security - the way perhaps we seek to make ourselves fulfilled and happy without truly being able to see what is actually happening to us.
This isn't a sad novel, it is not a heavy going novel. There are some difficult truths acknowledged and there are some passages that are full of raw, realistic and very honest writing about taboo subjects and the ugly nature of relationships and parenting but I did not find it an oppressive read or depressing. I was caught up in the journey with Alex and Ma and I wanted to find out all about them. I was waiting with Alex until her mother gave her the answers she was waiting for and told her the stories she wanted to hear. I was completely transfixed by the relationship between Ma and Alex and the dynamics between them as they traced back a life of hardship and struggle. I devoured the pages and devoured the development of the characters. I hung on Alex's words and was constantly impressed with Taylor's exposition and writing.
"I didn't have the child's blind trust in the omnipotence of parents anymore. I had eaten the apple and now knew that Ma was just like me, that she probably didn't know what to do right now anymore than I would, that her only advantage was a rapidly narrowing gulf of experience."
Taylor's prose is without doubt eloquent, captivating and vivid. The Lauras is without doubt a beautifully observed novel with stunning writing and engrossing characters.
Sara Taylor’s first novel, The Shore was a stunning debut, a collection of individual stories which were interweaving, deeply entangled exploring the history and geography of a small group of islands off the coast of Virginia, and the families and their descendants who marked the place, and were marked by it
So I was extremely interested (and with some trepidation) to read her ‘can you follow THAT – always a challenge when a debut writer sets a very high standard for themselves to meet again.
Well, I need not have worried. The Lauras is a very different book, but it is equally immersive, equally assured, equally wonderful.
“Out of the dark, foaming ocean a sun was rising, massive and red. It balanced on the black line of the horizon and spilled its blood across the sky, tore the scudding clouds with pink and caked the wet sand, and for a moment, I wondered if, in the course of my sleeping, we’d made it to the end of the world, where the sun rose out of the ocean like a newborn thing in the way I’d always imagined seeing but never had
“Where are we?” I asked
“Florida,” she said”
Taylor, originally from rural Virginia, clearly has a love of the landscape of her country, and this is evidenced in this book, effectively, a mother and child road trip. However, Taylor chose to complete her education in the UK, where she now lives, so she also brings that interesting outsider’s eye to her native country. Something being explored here, in many ways, is identity, and those who, in different ways, do not fit into the world which mainstream cultural thinking, and existing structures, have designed. Her interest is in misfits – which to some extent must mean almost all of us. Few are perfectly round pegs easily happy in perfectly round holes.
The mother in this story is clearly an outsider – child of Sicilian immigrants, she is not quite Sicilian, not quite American. Circumstances led to her having a wild, disrupted childhood, and she was fostered. The road trip is towards a journey back to her own past. She is married, with a thirteen year old child, but the marriage is foundering. Alex, the 13 year old is torn between whether to follow mother or father as the primary identity role model, as children of breaking marriages often can be. Ma rather takes matters into her own hands, following a particular row. She has been planning on escaping this marriage for some time, and has had hidden bags packed in readiness. Alex is scooped up in the middle of the night, without really knowing what is going on, and the two set out on a two year and more road trip, sometimes hunkering down so Alex’s schooling can continue, whilst Ma works at menial jobs. She is searching for some specific friends from childhood and young womanhood. Friends, and more than friends. Ma has a fluidity around her sexual orientation as well as her nationality and cultural identification. Coincidentally a few of the early significant friends were called Laura, so the name has acquired potency.
Ma and Alex are dependent on the kindness of strangers, at times, but are also at risk from the unkindness of others, and sometimes, they will have to be the ones offering kindness, or seeking to right wrongs and dispense rough justice
Narrator, now an adult, looking back some quarter of a century, is Alex, so the narrative voice is adolescence through the filter of maturity
“Memory is slippery, not even like a fish but like an eel, like an ice cube, like a clot of blood whose membranous skin can barely contain internal shifting liquidity. It’s something that, the firmer you try to grasp it, the weaker the hold you have on it, the less trustworthy it becomes. But it doesn’t matter what really happened, does it? Reality matters less than how it is perceived, that edge or feather or scale that you catch onto as it flickers by. And after a year or ten in a dingy pocket who can say if it was a lizard’s scale or a dragon’s in the first place?”
Unfortunately, so very much about this book might be spoiled for a reader if further information is given, yet I’m aware that a review this evasive or woolly might fail to lure a potential reader. I will have to err on the side of evasion. Like things are in this book for Alex, who does not know the destination Ma is heading for, it is the unknown journey – road, or book, which is the point. Naming, defining, holding out signposts for readers would be destructive
“Humans – most of us, at least – have the incapability of pondering the really terrifying things for any serious length of time. It’s probably what keeps us from throwing ourselves off cliffs in mass fits of existential crisis”
Taylor tells a wonderful story, and her writing of it is beautiful, crafted, sure.
I recommend this very strongly. I read it in digital version for review, from the publishers via NetGalley
I await Taylor’s next book with even higher hopes. Tremendous
The novel has an episodic feel and, despite the potential for narrative repetition of moving from gritty motel to dusty road to gritty motel, each stop along their journey is beautifully drawn in immersive and lyrical prose. Neither Alex nor Ma have uncomplicated lives, and it's not a book that ties everything up in a neat bow at the end, but there was a sense of hope nonetheless. By far the best coming of age novel I've read in years.