Earlier this month, SYP Oxford read The Shore for the June book club.
The first thing that draws you to this book is the soft matte cover, adorned with pastel seashells. But the single tooth, camouflaged amongst the delicate images hints that there is more intensity to this novel than a gentle summer read. In The Shore, Sara Taylor tackles themes from domestic violence and drug abuse, to the apocalypse and humanity’s rebirth. The novel captures the bitter sweetness of isolated communities – the beauty, the history and the connectedness, but also the claustrophobia and the constant reminders of mistakes.
The Shore is written as thirteen short stories, woven into a web of a novel that follows the lives of two island families through two and a half centuries. Taylor plays with chronology and voice, but also skillfully explores genres ranging from the Southern Gothic to the Dystopian to create a vibrant text. Her use of structure builds the islands’ history, constantly jumping in time and character to provide multiple perspectives and add richness to the painful events that plague the families. This style is effective, although at times can feel a little gratuitous – such as the jarring use of second person which reads more as an attempt to show range rather than adding anything to the story.
Opening with the story of thirteen-year-old Chloe in her deprived marshland home, we witness her explosive actions after the death of her mother and violent upbringing at the hands of her crack-addicted father. The reader is plunged into a world where a blind-eye is turned to purpled skin and gunshots in the night. Towards the end of the novel, we see Chloe return to the island as a grown woman, drawn in pursuit of peace and closure. This is the only perspective that returns in the novel and it reads as the perfect ending, symbolising the cyclical nature of life on the island - how it is caught up in itself and entangles those who endure it. It also brings a feeling of hope, of a new start and a sense of belonging. I felt that at this point, Taylor had reached a powerful conclusion and yet the novel continues with an additional, and in my opinion disjointed, final chapter.
A family tree is provided, offering a further dynamic by enabling the reader to investigate the connections and trace the myths of ancestors and the consequences of each generation’s actions. However, I found this complicated and distracting fairly early on and instead took each chapter as its own story. There were a few people whose perspectives I felt were missing, such as murdered Cabel Bloxom who fleetingly appears in other people’s tales, but the loose ends mean there is a lot potential for future works that I hope Taylor explores.
Feminism flows through the novel, with the majority of the focus on the female characters and a recurring motif of castration that attempts to redress the gender balance. Yet despite the women’s strength, they are almost without exception victims, and this becomes a story of their struggle to survive in a brutal patriarchal community. The island women are full of inner strength, they have deeply passionate love for their children, they are quietly thoughtful and yet they are all barely existing. Even when their choice to withstand abuse is calculated, the captivity is painful to read and the power of the shore means that those who escape are soon pulled back into suffocating isolation.
The real power of this book lies in the way the language physically pulls the reader into the dramatic scenes. Taylor writes violence exceptionally well and some particularly graphic moments are so real and prolonged they make for necessarily uncomfortable reading. In a world where rape shaming and domestic violence are very real issues, The Shore not only talks about taboos, it presents a full-colour exhibition with the reader in the front row.
The vividness of her writing has kept scenes in my mind which have the power to make me shudder. This is an important and affecting book that exposes women’s issues in a way that cannot be ignored, and was a well deserved nominee for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.