‘A patronising read, and one that frustrates just as much as it amazes’ – The Shore by Sara Taylor

tsstFinding plaudits already with a place on the Bailey’s Prize longlist, The Shore arrives with a degree of hype. It’s a difficult novel to surmise, not least because to explain the plot is to potentially spoil some of the surprises within. Actually, that’s not entirely true. The Shore is more a collection of short stories, disguised as a novel  and from page one seems determined to spoil any surprises for the reader itself.

Flitting across time periods, from the early 1800s to the mid-2100s, following cousins, brothers, sisters, mothers, distant relatives and the close relations of a family who appear to have suffered more hardships than most cast members of Eastenders; the book seems desperate to excuse itself as a collection of stories, and keeps on trying to present itself as a novel. Much like Ray Bradbury’s debut The Martian Chronicles, this is a flawed attempt at such an act. Certainly, the stories within the book are linked together and some, particularly towards the end, exist solely to link together previous stories.

There are tales of prohibition era bootlegging, a girl taking revenge on her meth addicted father, ghostly tales involving mysterious ‘boys’ at the window of a house, a poker game that escalates to a frightening conclusion, and two utterly bizarre future set stories; not to mention several fairly straightforward pieces. It is sometimes fairly generic melodrama, sometimes brilliant Southern Gothic, and occasionally insipid period romance. The book is an enormously mixed bag, and that’s a shame, since when it hits (in particular ‘Rain’ and ‘The Boys’) it really manages to do something unique and interesting. Taylor clearly has an eye for description and her writing is on the whole good, although her dialogue is quite poor (‘fatheads’ is used as an insult during a very serious poker game story).

Even worse is the feeling you get whilst reading it that the book is holding your hand throughout. Never quite trusting the reader to ‘get it’, there is a helpful family tree at the start showing you exactly what links each character (completely spoiling several big reveals in the book). It often feels as though either the author, or editor had such little confidence in the readers of the book that they felt they had to explain everything up front. A more confident book would have removed the family tree, as well as the chapter titles (which are presented as years – another enormous spoiler). You do also wonder whether a more confident book would have eschewed the connective tissue between stories, which is often pointless, and served up a slightly smaller, but much tighter collection of short stories.

Any Cop?: In the end, no. This book shows a lot of promise, and there are sparks of brilliance in here, but in the end, it’s a patronising read, and one that frustrates just as much as it amazes. There are a handful of brilliant, brilliant short stories in here, but as a novel, ultimately it fails.

Daniel Carpenter


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