The Shore, by Sara Taylor

There was a passage from The Merchant of Venice that played on a loop in my head as I read Sara Taylor’s The Shore:

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? (Act III, Scene I)

The Shore is a series of interconnected stories about a group of families who live on three barrier islands in Virginia between 1876 and 2143. With one exception, characters are wronged in each chapter. Some character bide their time before taking their vengeance. Others flee and start over on the mainland. For the most part, there are more villains than heroes and lives are hard—harder than they should be. But there’s always the slight hope that tomorrow will bring an opportunity to get one’s own back.

23128320It takes a while to get one’s bearing in The Shore. The stories are not arranged in chronological order. Character names and family stories come up more than once, establishing the connections between the narrators in the various chapters. To make things more difficult, one story is narrated in first person. Another is in second person. Fortunately, most stories are told with a limited third person perspective. All this is by way of explaining how hard it is to summarize The Shore.

If I resort events chronologically, we see a story of a group of people—most related to each other, but some not—who’ve stolen what they have more often than not. Medora, the character furthest back in time, took advantage of a con man who was hoping to use her father as a mark to get away from her abusive parent. She has the con man set up a new plantation for them on Parksley Island. Things turn violent, but Medora gets the best of the scheming con man. Decades later, a segment of the family sets up shop distilling apple brandy just before Prohibition takes effect. Fifteen years or so after that, the family sees a repeat of Medora’s “two husbands” play out before the family splits into more and less respectable branches.

By the 1980s, poverty, drugs, and sex have stripped away most of the families’ pretensions. The stories set in the 1980s and 90s are the hardest to get through, emotionally speaking. The women are abused by so many of the men around them it’s a wonder they don’t all give in to despair. One of the few characters who has more than one chapter, Chloe Gordy, is one of my favorites. Chloe grew up with a meth-addicted father and learned quickly to beg, borrow, or steal to keep herself and her younger sister fed. When she takes her own rough vengeance on the men who would hurt her, I felt like applauding.

Two stories in The Shore take us into the future, in which a sexually transmitted disease becomes an apocalyptic pandemic. I wasn’t expecting these chapters at all. Most of the book is firmly in the literary and historical fiction genres. The two stories set in the future catapult us into alternate history and speculative fiction. They are, strangely, the most hopeful chapters. In them, characters aren’t seeking revenge. Instead, they are looking to start a new, better life. (On a side note, I loved the regressive language that Taylor used in the story set in 2143. The vocabulary and grammar hark back to the earliest stories and have a beautiful rhythm.)

Through all the stories in The Shore, the islands are more than a background. Their isolation makes the human community its own society by necessity. One gets the impression that the islands are all there is and the mainland might as well be on Mars. Perhaps that’s why the characters seem to have no one else to turn to and must shift for themselves as best they can. The psychological scars the characters bear are echoed in the ecological depredations the islands suffer. And, given enough time, all wounds can be healed.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 26 May 2015.

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