Welcome to The Shore: a collection of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean. Where clumps of evergreens meet wild ponies, oyster-shell roads, tumble-down houses, unwanted pregnancies, murder, storm-making and dark magic in the marshes. . .
Situated off the coast of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, the group of islands known as the Shore has been home to generations of fierce and resilient women. Sanctuary to some but nightmare to others, it’s a place they’ve inhabited, fled, and returned to for hundreds of years. From a half-Shawnee Indian’s bold choice to flee an abusive home only to find herself with a man who will one day try to kill her to a brave young girl’s determination to protect her younger sister as methamphetamine ravages their family, to a lesson in summoning storm clouds to help end a drought, these women struggle against domestic violence, savage wilderness, and the corrosive effects of poverty and addiction to secure a sense of well-being for themselves and for those they love.
Together their stories form a deeply affecting legacy of two barrier island families, illuminating 150 years of their many freedoms and constraints, heartbreaks, and pleasures. Conjuring a wisdom and beauty all its own, The Shore is a richly unique, stunning novel that will resonate with readers long after turning its final pages, establishing Sara Taylor as a promising new voice in fiction. – Goodreads
I’m going to be the voice of dissent on this novel. If you look at the chatter in the blogosphere or check out ratings on Goodreads, you’ll see that this book has been a hugely successful breakout debut, well-loved by critics and readers alike.
And I can see why, I really can. It has a lot going for it. The writing is excellent (particularly taking into account the young age of its author). The characters are well-conceived. The setting is flawless and you will squirm as you read about the abuse and humiliation some of the characters suffer.
I like the concept behind this book, too. It’s almost a selection of short stories, except that they’re loosely connected by blood and ties to the shore – a marshy, secluded area on the Virginia coast that, despite its economic limitations, manages to hook and hold onto generation after generation of inhabitants.
Despite the many positive things this book has going for it, I still found I had trouble reading it. For a few reasons – some of which weren’t the fault of the book, but still affected my reaction to it.
First, the family tree. It’s poorly drawn and missing people, which makes it hard to figure out who’s who – particularly when the book jumps around through time and characters. And nearly every chapter is written about a different character, which makes it confusing and compromises emotional connection.
Second, the sheer amount of abuse (not to mention unfortunate circumstances and poor decision-making) is a bit much. This book spans nearly 200 years, but nearly everyone in this book is in an unhappy or abusive relationship. After a while this starts to feel like being hit over the head with a mallet. Not the most subtle of approaches, and it further deadened the emotional impact for me. Eventually there were a few story lines that weren’t quite as dismal, but if this hadn’t been a review book, I probably would have given up before getting to them.
Finally, I really didn’t like the two chapters set in the future. The first one seemed to veer dramatically sideways into the realm of science fiction, and the apocalyptic plot felt like a story I’ve been reading and watching a lot in the past couple of years. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, if it’s done well, but this book didn’t need it. And the final story was the one that I struggled with the most. It’s set about a hundred and thirty years in the future, so things have changed a lot. The shore has protected its inhabitants by isolating them, cutting them off from modern conveniences and outside contact. The scene was evocatively set and felt true to a culture forced to return to subsistence survival for over a century. But what really threw me was the language.
Somehow this tiny community on an island off the coast of Virginia had evolved linguistically to take on a mixture of Olde English and Scottish vernacular (or maybe Irish? I’m not sure, but one of those). While I understand that Taylor was trying to set the tone of this story apart from the rest of the book, this linguistic evolution just doesn’t make sense. Language evolves based on cultural changes and advancements combined with how groups in close geographic proximity intermingle. But this was an isolated community in America. Unless a ship of Scottish refugees (from a bygone era) washed up on the shore, how did terms like “twixt,” “kenned,” “babbies,” “afore,” and “mam and da” enter into common usage when they were absent in present-day representations of the area?
I think I would have liked this book more if it was less tied to bloodlines and more focused on the land – and if it had been chronological so I didn’t have to spend so much time trying to figure out where in the family tree each story fit. I also could have done without both stories set in the future – the penultimate story would have provided a more than satisfying ending.
I know I’m in the minority with my opinion of this book. Add to that the fact that family sagas aren’t my thing, and yet I’ve somehow ended up reading a lot of them lately. So I’m a bit burned out on complex family trees and stories that take place over generations, jumping back and forth through time and between characters. None of this is the fault of this book, but it made me much less patient with deciphering the familial connections between the characters and having to get to know new ones each chapter. I wanted fewer stories with more depth. Or just a straight up book of short stories only loosely tied together.
That said, this wasn’t a bad book. It wasn’t for me, but the writing cut like a knife, while at times being incredibly beautiful. I think this book will be loved by those who are into complex family sagas and who have more patience for victims who don’t always get revenge or a better future, and can forgive an overabundance of the negative and some inconsistencies. I also think that this book shows incredible potential on the part of its author, and though it isn’t in my favourites, I will definitely give her another shot.
Because I want you guys to have the benefit of perspectives that weren’t informed by the things that bothered me specifically, here are some more favourable (or just different) reviews you might want to check out if this is a book you’re curious about and considering reading:
Have you read The Shore? What did you think of it? I’d love to hear about it in the comments – this was a particularly difficult review to write, and I’ve been editing and re-editing for days!
Author: Sara Taylor
Published By: Bond Street Books
Released: May 26, 2015
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Family
Date Read: May 24-June 3, 2015