The enigma at the heart of Sara Taylor’s parent and child road trip into the dark history of a dysfunctional family is one of many pleasures in a moving novel, writes Stuart Kelly
The Lauras by Sara Taylor | William Heinemann, £12.99
Sara Taylor’s tour-de-force debut, The Shore, was an intriguing set of interlocked short stories, spanning generations and crossing genres, from dirty realism to science fiction to gothic history. It questioned what is lost and what is inherited; it interrogated how much an individual can endure and the stories cunningly revealed things out of chronological order. A judgment made initially would have to be revised when one realised the past, or the future, of the individual. 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. It is again a novel constructed from individual stories – a picaresque if you want – but this time with just two individuals rather than several generations.
Alex is woken from not-sleeping through another parental argument and bundled into a car by Ma. Credit cards are shredded; mobiles thrown into rivers; and Ma has a map indicating not just the titular Lauras, but places where she promised to keep promises. What begins as fleeing turns into vacation and mutates into the mundanity of how to make money on the run. It also initiates Alex into Ma’s history, as for the first time she starts to tell stories about her past. Ma is the child of Sicilian immigrants and her past is littered with adoptions and care-homes, beatnik flophouses and low paid jobs during college vacations. She has done questionable things, but whether they were bad or good is the question. Now, she is on a quest to settle scores, achieve some kind of redemption and finally allow herself to be happy. The quest will take in religious fundamentalists and seedy bars, ransacking abandoned houses and an epiphany at sunset.
But her stories always stall. Towards the end of the novel Alex is acute on this point. “It’s so rare that reality rustles up a satisfying narrative shape, the edges rounded off and the ends tied up… You can go the regulation eighty-odd years without getting one neat chapter break, forget about “The End”. It just goes on and on, like snail slime.”
But Alex is not a passive observer to Ma’s story. Alex has a story too. Anyone reading the first 30 pages of this novel will be asking a question, almost subconsciously. Who is telling us this? When you begin to snag on to the use of “kid” whenever Alex is mentioned, or references to Alex’s long hair it becomes clear. It is made absolutely clear in the text so I’m not spoiling anything, as grown-ups don’t just read for plot-twists, so: 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. Alex chooses not to choose, and is stuck in a situation where Ma is doing pretty much all the choosing. By the end, Alex will make choices. 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. She has a slight affection for a sentence which combines something palpable with something abstract: “The bus left at four am, stinking of people that hadn’t slept or showered or got much hope left”; “a room that smelled like old cigarettes and disappointment”. It’s an elegant construction, but too many in too few pages makes it look mannered. 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. The very clever evasion and elision of terms smudges the wonderfully teenage anger at “crotch giblets”.
“I always thought it was weird – you try your hardest not to mess up your kids and that’s how you screw them over for life” says Ma. That such a sophisticated book has such a simple message is a joy.
• Sara Taylor, Edinburgh International Book Festival, 25 August