After wading through a slew of books that have left me largely indifferent, what a joy, not to mention a relief, to arrive upon The Shore, an intricate, intelligent, passionate work that does not so much storm the barricades of speculative fiction as quietly subvert our expectations of what speculative fiction might be capable of. In its portrayal of a people’s intimate and occasionally claustrophobic relationship with the land they live on, if The Shore reminds me of anything it is Adam Thorpe’s 1992 debut Ulverton, often described as a historical novel but in reality something quite other, or, more closely still, Claire Vaye Watkins’s evocative 2012 collection Battleborn. Watkins’s portrait of her native Nevada is searing and critical, even where her life-bond to the region is unmistakable. Taylor’s feelings about Accomack County, Virginia are equally powerful, and equally ambivalent. What she does in her handling of time—past, present, and future—arguably makes Taylor’s debut still more ambitious and impressive than Watkins’s.
The "Shore" of the title is actually a group of three islands, "off the coast of Virginia and just south of Maryland, trailing out into the Atlantic Ocean like someone’s dripped paint":
Accomack Island, the big one, is closest to the mainland . . . Then comes Chincoteague Island, off the northeast coast of Accomack. It’s much smaller and squarish, not quite a town but bigger than a village, where most of the people with money, people who weren’t born here but came across from the mainland, have summer homes . . . Assateague Island is the furthest east, where there used to be a village but where no one lives anymore since it became a national park. . . . All three of the islands together is the Shore. (p. 7)
Taylor’s narrative is composed of thirteen self-contained chapters, arranged irregularly along a timeline that stretches from 1876 ("Out of Eden") to 2143 ("Tears of the Gods"). We begin in 1995 with "Target Practice." Thirteen-year-old Chloe Gordy recounts the events that lead to the death of her father, Bo Gordy, a violent and unpredictable man who earns his living on the killing floor of one of Accomack Island’s three chicken factories. Chloe tells us about other islanders, too: her mother Ellie, who she believes walked out after finally having her fill of the abusive Bo, local lowlife Cabel Bloxom, who Chloe once caught trying to assault her younger sister Renee and who at the beginning of this chapter has just been found dead—murdered—in a nearby beauty spot:
"They found him waist deep in the mud in Muttonhunk Creek, his face shot to pieces and all swole up with being in the water. His girlfriend had to identify him by the tattoo on his back." (pp. 1-2)
Of course this is no random act of violence, and as Chloe’s story progresses we begin to get a hint of how deeply embedded her neighbours are with one another, how one person’s story is inextricably linked with all the others, how the action or inaction of one character will have indelible repercussions down the line. We will meet Chloe again fifteen years later in "Missing Pieces," when she returns to the islands after an adolescence spent in care homes on the mainland. "Missing Pieces" is the penultimate chapter of the book, and by the time we get to it we will have learned a great deal more, not only about the characters we have been introduced to in "Target Practice" but about their grandmothers and great-grandmothers also, the precarious circumstances of their lives and their deepest grievances. As Chloe learns the true facts about her background, we are as shocked and ultimately defiant as she is herself. We now know not only where she has come from, but what she has had to go through to escape.
If Chloe Gordy is the pearl in the novel’s oyster—the book’s hero-of-sorts—then Medora Slater is the grit that produced her. Born in 1858, Medora is from away, the daughter of a reactionary Kentucky landowner and one of the domestic workers on his estate:
Medora’s parents had never married. Her mother had been one of the few remaining Shawnee, who wore dresses and pinned up her hair like a white woman, mended clothes and worked the fields, kept her eyes on the ground . . . [She] had no husband, no family, did not cover up her condition, named him openly as the father, and from Medora’s birth he held a grudge against them both . . . He had expected [Medora’s] mother to give her up with little argument: she’d bitten the overseer’s arm bloody, and two of the hands had carried her away and locked her in a curing barn to keep the man from shooting her like a mad dog. (pp. 62-63)
Medora’s father is canny, cruel, domineering, and contradictory. Having purloined the infant Medora for no other reason than to cause grief to her mother, he later decides to educate her and give her the kind of upbringing that would be considered suitable for a "southern lady" and the heir to his estate. His decision has more to do with contrarianism than with altruism, however, and his physical abuse of Medora, together with his racist attitudes, continue throughout her childhood and adolescence, if anything increasing in their vindictiveness. Medora defies him by growing up as tenacious and fearless as he is and twice as clever, qualities which, with her coming of age, are quickly turned towards the interconnected problems of revenge and escape. She comes at last to the Shore, a sanctuary of sorts and with its very isolation providing her for the first time with something that approaches peace of mind. The children Medora gives birth to are bound to the Shore as she is, and in her descendents we will see repeated outbreaks—like fierce-tongued bushfires—of both the violence and keen intelligence that brought her there. Some of them—the women especially—are gifted in extraordinary ways, brushed with the same touch of the numinous that characterises both Medora and her mother. Medora’s great-granddaughter Sally comes into her inheritance whilst still a young child:
A breeze came along, the thin, wafery kind that lasts for minutes at a time, and Grandpa Tom had said, "Go along, try with this one." She’d reached out her hands, like he’d shown her, and felt the breeze between her fingers like long strands of dried grass, only this time she felt it in her mind, too, as if her head were an empty room with all the windows open and the breeze was wandering through it. She’d grabbed hold and twisted, and the breeze twirled in on itself, picking up the cut grass on the road, spinning a confused chicken around a few times, then straightening back out. (p. 39)
The strange aptitudes we see in Sally are glimpsed again in Tamara, Sally’s great-niece and one of the few survivors of a sexually transmitted pandemic that sweeps the Shore in the 2030s. Tamara returns to Sally’s former home, drawn there in pursuit of the medicines she feels certain are to be found in Sally’s long-abandoned herbarium. What she finds is a ghost-place, full of echoes and forgotten knowledge. Whether Tamara can survive long enough to put that knowledge into practice seems far from certain:
There were bookshelves all over the house, crammed with kids’ books and teen books and fat sci-fi and fantasy novels and romance novels and every single damned classical book she’d not read in high school, and all of those she left alone, but when she saw the high-up shelf behind the desk in the living room, she knew that she’d struck gold. At the best of times Tamara wasn’t a reader, she didn’t even really enjoy movies unless she had someone to make out with during the talking parts, but the part of her that jumped at the sight of a sexy body jumped at the sight of that shelf. There was New Gray’s Anatomy, Fertility and Conception, Physicians’ Desk Reference, Home Remedies for Young Mothers, books that weren’t meant to be read for entertainment but in order to make things happen. (p. 226)
Taylor’s vision of the future in Tamara’s chapter, "Talismans," may be characterised by the familiar tropes of post-apocalypse—pandemic, depopulation, violence, and decay—but it is rescued from the vale of cliché by the resonances that have been set up between characters and places we already know from earlier chapters, and may glimpse again in chapters still to come. Similarly in "Tears of the Gods," the final chapter of the novel and in its degenerated language and new-stone-age aesthetic strongly reminiscent of works such as Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and the "Sloosha’s Crossing" section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, it is not the materials of science fiction that are important, so much as the way people deal with them. "Tears of the Gods" imagines a Shore that is all but unrecognisable from earlier chapters, and yet the novel ends on an optimistic note as Simian, disabled from birth, proves himself as capable and resourceful as any of his ancestors.
Taylor’s deliberately erratic and non-linear treatment of time—in the future-set sections as elsewhere in the novel—results in a feeling of continuum, of circularity, of overlayering that is extraordinary and deeply affective. The different chapters are presented to us somewhat as photographs in a battered album. Some are older than others, the colours faded away almost to monochrome. Others are more recently taken, and still bright. That they are irredeemably out of order, that we must work out the links between them (the way this person or that person might be related, the way an object first mentioned in 1919 might change everything about a nascent post-apocalyptic society in 2143) for ourselves only adds to the sense of mystery and wonderment they instil.
If you enjoyed Paul Park’s All Those Vanished Engines, with its capricious intermingling of the fantastic and the mundane, the well-remembered and the half-forgotten and with no tiny detail irrelevant to the whole, then you will most likely enjoy this book too—though it should be noted that Taylor’s attitude to her readers is more inclusive than Park’s, more overtly communicative. Where the solutions to Park’s riddles lie deeply encoded, Taylor’s glimmer before us like a trail of breadcrumbs. There is no doubt that Taylor wants us to uncover the mysteries at the heart of her novel. This desire is reflected everywhere in its language: muscular, insistent, richly descriptive yet never overburdened with extraneous metaphor, starkly lyrical and taut as fishing wire, brimming with power.
No review of The Shore would be complete without mention of Sara Taylor’s magnificent characterisation of her dynasty of women. There are, as they say, a few good men (Thomas Lumsden, Mark Byrd, Grandpa Tom, Benny Gordy, and of course Simian) but in the main, the male response in The Shore to hardship and privation is moral weakness, chauvinism of the most appalling kind and, overwhelmingly, violence. The women are not immune to these things—old scores are settled, murders are done—but their strength and tenacity, their determination and resourcefulness, their capacity for endurance regardless of circumstance is a striking and inspirational thing to behold, both in terms of its narrative power and of Taylor’s clear-eyed appreciation for these kinds of stories. Chloe, Sally, Izzy, Tamara, Becky, and of course Medora—these are ordinary women leading lives that are rendered extraordinary by Taylor’s attention to detail, her unflinching approach to the harshness of her subject matter.
There will no doubt be those who will boringly insist that The Shore is not a novel so much as a collection of linked short stories. Such an approach, which demands that to be worthy of the name a novel should adhere to the conventional nineteenth-century template—linear narrative, defined parameters—seems pointlessly rigid and tiresome, especially nowadays. For me, a novel’s defining factor is authorial intent. That Sara Taylor wrote the chapters that make up The Shore with a view to having them published as a unitary work, that she intended them to be read in sequence, in the order in which she has carefully assembled them, cannot be in doubt. Although each of the chapters could, in theory, be read in isolation as a standalone story, there is also no doubt that when read in its proper context as part of a whole, each chapter gains enormously in terms of its impact, reach, and overall meaning. For those still clamouring for a defined overarching narrative, with a properly discernible beginning, middle, and end, I would say that The Shore delivers all these things, though not necessarily in the order you might expect to find them. That this is all to the good is of course open to argument, though you’ll hear none from me. The Shore is a novel to treasure. Flawlessly written and endlessly captivating, this is the kind of book that, like a well-thumbed family album, can be endlessly re-imagined and reinterpreted, that will retain its power to enchant throughout numerous encounters.
Nina Allan's stories have appeared in many anthologies, including Best British Fantasy 2014, Solaris Rising 3, and The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. Her novella Spin, a reimagining of the Arachne myth, won the British Science Fiction Award in 2014, and her collection The Silver Wind, a story-cycle on themes of time and memory, won the Grand Prix de L'Imaginaire in the same year. Her debut novel The Race, set in an alternate future England and featuring bio-engineered greyhounds and island-sized whales, was published in 2014 by NewCon Press. She lives and works in North Devon.