“Probably a good one for teens” – The Lauras by Sara Taylor

tlstAlex and Alex’s Ma are off on a roadtrip, but Alex – aged thirteen – doesn’t know where they’re headed or for how long they’re going. As it turns out, they’re on the move for two years on a winding, unpredictable east-west mission to confront Ma’s past and tie up loose ends. And these loose ends aren’t trivial: they range from sucker-punching her abusive old boss, and scattering the ashes of an old friend, to springing another old friend’s daughter from her engagement to a deeply conservative, religious man, and tracking down a long-lost child.

The pair live out of their car, crash in dingy motels, camp in national parks and work in seedy bars, and all the while, Alex, who’s bouncing from school to school, and taking in Ma’s stories of her runaway childhood and experimental teens, is leaving behind childhood and entering an adolescence that’s as lonely as it is sexually-charged.

Alongside the road-trip structure and the parent-child bonding/bickering motif, the book’s other main thread is gender: Alex identifies as non-binary, and while Ma’s very supportive, it doesn’t go down so well with various other people they meet on the road. So the book’s deeply concerned with identity, the questioning of social norms, and acceptance of others’ lifestyles (while Ma supports Alex’s refusal to conform, she also supports her pal’s decision to abandon her girlfriend and settle in a very reactionary religious community). Ma’s drawn-out mission to settle every score and honour every promise means that the pair find themselves in a bunch of different situations, confronting a fair whack of moral conundrums (trying to minimise spoilers here) but it’s not a morality tale – Ma’s backstory is plenty full of drugs and sex, for instance, and she neither presents this is a negative nor encourages Alex to emulate her. The book is comfortable, then, with ambivalence and experimentation and – above all – empathy; more than anything, perhaps, it’s the story of Alex’s maturation, with Ma’s stories and the trip’s eventful pit-stops acting as ways for Ma to pass on that empathy to a child who’s otherwise made to face too large a share aggression and hostility.

Did we like it? Well… if you like very peripatetic, episodic novels, and/or nostalgic trips, and/or coming-of-age narratives, you’ll be onto a winner. Taylor does a great line in sketching out the idiosyncrasies of small-town America while neither romanticising nor condemning it, and it’s good to see a main character who blasts cis-gender norms out of the water without the book being explicitly About Gender. We found the meandering structure a little tiresome, and preferred Taylor’s adventures in the short-short cycle (interlinked short pieces) in her first book, The Shore – this one felt less satisfactory as a whole. But that’s more a matter of personal preference than a flaw in the text: we reckon plenty of you will love it.

Any Cop?: Yeah, with the provisos above; probably a good one for teens, too (or anyone too hung up on the boy/girl thing for their own good).

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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