The Shore is as flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow, and usually you can just about see the dark smear that is Chincoteague Island off to the northeast. We are one of three islands, off the coast of Virginia and just south of Maryland, trailing out into the Atlantic Ocean like someone’s dripped paint. We take the force out of hurricanes, grow so much food that a lot of it rots on the vine because there’s too much to pick or eat, but people say the government doesn’t ever remember we’re here, that we get left off when they draw the big maps.
The Shore begins in 1995 when Chloe, 13, is out buying chicken necks to use for crabbing. Chloe overhears a customer and the cashier discussing the murder of Cabel Bloxom. He’s ‘ “had his face shot to pieces”…[and] “They done cut his thang clean off!” ‘ By the middle of the chapter we know who’s shot him and why; by the end of the chapter there’s a second killing. It’s an explosive and shocking start to the book but the scenarios that surround both killings are sadly all too familiar.
Chloe, her younger sister, Renee, and their father live in a small house on Accomack Island, the largest of the three islands that make up The Shore.
It’s a little house, our house, one room downstairs and two rooms upstairs and a porch for each, and according to the phone company and the electric company and the taxman it doesn’t exist.
They’re poor. The girls are crabbing because there’s no food in the house. Their father works on the killing floor at one of the chicken plants because it’s the only work available. Their childhood is brutal – more so because they’re girls.
But this isn’t Chloe and Renee’s story; it’s the story of two families and the islands from 1876 to 2143.
In thirteen connected stories, Taylor tells us of women who leave and return, who can control the weather, who are smart and fight for their freedom from men, who find ways to survive despite the brutality that’s inflicted upon them. They’re tales of family and survival.
What’s most impressive about the book is the way Taylor moves between different characters and stories, making them and their voices unique. She experiments with different types of story telling – moving between past and present tense, using conventions of different genres. It’s this that’s led to the book being compared to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which – and I say this as a huge fan of David Mitchell’s work – does Taylor a disservice; she nods to different genres rather than immersing the stories in them and the links between the tales are much subtler and require more work from the reader than those in Cloud Atlas. One of the joys of the book is working out how the characters link together.
However, on occasion, this is also the book’s downfall. There was one story in particular which seemed out of place and although at the end of the novel, it’s clearly connected, it took me out of the story and the atmosphere created before that point.
Regardless, The Shore is an impressive debut. It shows Taylor has an ability to write many different stories – there is no lack of ambition here and that more than makes up for any perceived shortcomings.
Fellow shadow Bailey’s Prize panel member Eric has also reviewed The Shore on his blog.
Thanks to William Heinemann for the review copy.