If there is a mantra that flows through Sara Taylor’s debut novel The Shore, it’s “I know something you don’t know.”
On the surface of The Shore, the “something” with which Taylor taunts her readers is simple: the story of a web of old Southern families entrenched in rural Southern land. But of course it’s never that simple. On this smattering of islands off the coast of Virginia, relationships can’t be captured by a family tree; the tidy boxes and branches that precede the novel don’t do justice to family members who love, hate, rape, and kill one another. By presenting the family tree, Taylor might as well be saying, “Here—it won’t do you any good, but you’ll probably feel better having it.”
Taylor’s unknown “somethings” become most compelling when she meditates upon the interconnectedness of the various generations of women in the family. Medora Slater, head of the family tree, is one of the novel’s most magical, intriguing characters. An unwanted reminder of her white father’s brief affair with a Native American woman, Medora is abused throughout much of her early life as she moves from one violent man to another. Her tumultuous relationships extend through the family tree, flowing through the veins of her female descendants. Some of Medora’s blood relations follow in the path of their ancestors by staying on the Shore rather than going away to school; others are restless, like Sally, a headstrong great-great-granddaughter of Medora who prefers “a greater destiny” to merely “filling in her grandfather’s empty footsteps.”
At little more than three hundred pages, The Shore spans seven generations and two hundred and sixty-seven years. Moving from chapter to chapter can take us from the perspective of an abused woman to that of an abusive man; it can shift us from first-person to third-person. It can even transport us from 1919 to 2037, a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by diseases that could fill a novel of its own. Sometimes only a sentence is needed to take us years into the future: “It will be too late, by then, for some things, but not too late for everything.” Taylor gradually lets us in on the “something” we don’t know, making it impossible to discern whether a tidbit imparted in 1876 might be useful in 2143, or whether it even matters at all. Readers who become attached to particular characters will have to get over the pain of leaving them behind—just as the characters must do with each other.
The rustic geography that cuts off Taylor’s characters from the rest of the world, and they cut themselves off from one another’s personal issues. The focus of one particular section set in 1984 is Izzy, a young woman who has no genetic ties to the central family on The Shore but is close friends with Ellie, another one of Medora’s great-great-granddaughters. Both Izzy and Ellie are in volatile relationships, yet neither does anything to help the other or themselves:
Maybe one day you’ll learn to read his moods better, learn to sense when he’s running out of patience, learn to stop pushing him until the storm comes. There will be bruises, on your arms and other not so visible places, in the morning, and neither Stella nor Ellie nor any of the people you see throughout the day will say a word about them, the way you never say a word when Ellie’s skin blooms purple-green. Even so, you know they’ll see and wonder what you said, what you did, how you failed to keep it together this time.
We want to say, “Speak up!” But would it make a difference if she told her friends? Considering Ellie’s continuous physical abuse at the hands of her own husband Bo, the answer is probably no. Similarly, it probably wouldn’t make a difference if Izzy could “keep it together” for her boyfriend, or if she lived in a city rather than the private, secluded environment of the Shore. Violent people will be violent anywhere, at any time and for any reason. And those who have been abused are likely to be victimized again. The juxtaposition of different centuries in The Shore reminds us that we’re still making the same mistakes now that we made a hundred years ago.
The Shore is also valuable because of what it doesn’t do. The female condition is the focal point of the novel, yet this doesn’t allow us to write off the entire male species as mere slaves to their egos and libidos. Rather than showing us Ellie’s thoroughly sadistic, controlling husband Bo, Taylor places us with Bo’s apprentice, Jake. Jake initially seems naïve and well-intentioned. But during a night of cards and booze with Bo and Ellie, Jake’s innocent nature becomes his downfall. He begins to imitate Bo, and his involvement in a particularly disgusting act of sexual violence against Ellie catapults him from likeable to liable in the span of few pages, leaving us undecided about his character. Written in the first-person, the violent sexual acts that Jake witnesses are impossible to read without a visceral response. Taylor insists that we can’t look away.
If Taylor is saying, “I know something you don’t know,” then her characters say, “I feel something you should feel.” This is partly why The Shore was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and why, with all of its heartbreak and desperation, it’s worth reading—particularly by men. Maybe violence against women is passed from generation to generation, a displacement of suffering. Or maybe it sprouts naturally, a product of what “happens in the gap between boy and man to turn all that sweetness bitter… a necessary hardening, like a tree’s shedding of leaves as winter approaches.” The Shore doesn’t seek to tell us why. But Taylor ensures that we’re familiar with its long-lasting effects.