This is a Review: The Shore, by Sara Taylor

May 16, 2015

The first thing you need to know about The Shore is that the setting is one of the most important characters in the story. This is no small feat, as throughout its 300+ pages, we meet more than two dozen others, nearly all of them loosely connected to one of two families that have called this collection of islands off the coast of Virginia home since (at least) the early nineteenth century.

The reader watches these families quite literally come alive over a series of stories spanning more than two centuries. Almost every vignette has a different narrator, and one of the most enjoyable parts of the book was trying to puzzle out how all of these people fit together. (Physical ARCs and the finished product should be coming with family trees, but my copy didn't have one. I actually think I prefer it this way, as it allowed the story to unfold more naturally.) The Shore likewise undergoes a metamorphosis from a tourist-filled beach destination to a dilapidated ghost town to... something else entirely.

While it has its moments of charm, this is by no means a light book. Taylor makes no bones about sprinkling her novel liberally with domestic, sexual and child abuse, addiction of various kinds, an extended gang rape and a couple of gruesome murders. I knew this book would be dark going in, but I would have appreciated someone tipping me off about some of the more graphic scenes. Consider this the warning I didn't get!

While that list sounds gratuitous, it didn't feel that way while reading. The Shore is the definition of a rural wasteland; its residents farm and fish and work at the chicken plants that spew what smells like "chicken soup, and a whole lot like dog food, with the inside of a molding coop mixed in" (Loc 258). Not until the very end—a vignette set 150 years in the future—do we get any real sense of hope for what comes next. I'm reminded of another collection of stories I read, The Uncanny Valley by Gregory Miller; one of the characters said that the valley "has a way of keeping its own where they are." The Shore likewise holds its own in a clenched fist, and it's only natural that they would turn against each other (and themselves) to survive.

And yet, like most good Southern folk, many of the Shore's children find a sense of pride in where they come from:
"Going home, at the end of a day of shopping or visiting or reporting to the draft, I used to imagine I was King Arthur going to Avalon, and none of the city mess could follow me. It wasn't just the trip away in reverse. The stink of the city faded and that ribbon of life resolved magically out of the haze on the water. It was all soft and green, and no one could tell me the Shore wasn't the most beautiful place on the face of God's earth." - Loc. 2120-2126, The Shore
If you're looking for a generation-spanning story that oozes Southern atmosphere—and don't mind a little bit of magical realism and a whole lot of bleakness thrown in for good measure—The Shore is your book.

The Shore will be available for purchase on May 26.

Obligatory disclaimer goes here: I received The Shore from NetGalley for review consideration. Thanks so much to Hogarth of Crown Publishing Group for giving me the chance to read it!

I know a few of you have read The Shore—let's talk about it. And look out for next month's chat over at The Socratic Salon!

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  1. I'm so glad to hear the finished version will have a family tree. I wish I'd had one. I also wish I'd had the right expectations going into this...I expected a novel rather than "interconnected short stories", so got really frustrated for the first few chapters. Once I wrapped my head around the fact that I had to take tons of notes & that, no, this is not a traditional novel despite what it says on the cover of the book, then I was able to love the story.
    I also go to another spot on the Eastern Shore of VA every summer (about 30 miles from Parksley Island) father-in-law grew up there and worked in the potato fields as a boy! So, I obviously loved the setting and I think she did a good job of capturing the juxtaposition of extreme poverty and pockets of wealth.

  2. This book is the Southern Gothic story(ies?) I've been waiting for for so long, so it was such a great surprise for me to read. Sorry you were caught off guard by parts - I wrote about the specifics in my review, but it won't be up until next week.

    I think you're right about being happy not to have a family tree. I think even with one, I would have been digging back into stories, but it was just fun to do without having anything to rely on at all. I love a book that makes me work that way.

  3. I'm glad it eventually worked out for you! I could totally see how the loosely-connected short stories format might have driven some people away.

    That's awesome that you had your own mental image and experiences of the setting while you read! I'm glad to hear Taylor did a good job portraying it. :)

  4. No worries! Like I said, did not at all wreck my appreciation for the book, but certain scenes were much more intense than I could have anticipated.

    And yes, I'm all about working for my reads.

  5. This sounds great (and thanks for the warning!). I've been playing with connected short stories in my own writing, but haven't actually read a lot like it so I think I'll definitely read this soon.

    And I do really love intergenerational stories. There's something so epic about them. I think they act as a nice reminder that stories (and life in general) don't actually stop with one character/person.

  6. Now I see the importance of the family tree! I admit I did flip back and forth a bit as I read to try to figure out all the players. I love an interconnected story like this - but I do agree, I was shocked at first at the violence. I had to put it aside after the first chapter for a day.