Tuesday, 14 March 2017

The Lauras by Sara Taylor

The Lauras

The Lauras is the new novel from the exceptionally gifted author of The Shore, which was long listed for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year.

"I didn’t realise my mother was a person until I was thirteen years old and she pulled me out of bed, put me in the back of her car, and we left home and my dad with no explanations. I thought that Ma was all that she was and all that she had ever wanted to be. I was wrong."

As Ma and Alex make their way from Virginia to California, each new state prompts stories and secrets of a life before Alex. Together they put to rest unsettled scores, heal old wounds, and search out lost friends. But Alex can't forget the life they've left behind.

To be honest it was the quotes from other authors that made me want to read this book. If Ali Smith and Helen Dunmore are referring to this novel as 'eloquent', 'engrossing', 'extraordinary' and claiming that Taylor is a  'A writer of real gravitas and potency,' (Ali Smith) then this book has to be worth investigating! Having read a lot of thrillers recently I was looking for something which would offer me a bit of a change and this was definitely the right choice! 

I knew from the first line of the first chapter that I was going to enjoy this novel. The storyline was going to be secondary to me, the thing I knew I was going to enjoy was the writing. From the opening, I was caught up by Taylor's stunning prose and elegant writing. 

"I could hear them arguing......... I could feel one doing like the promise of a storm thickening the air........I listened to the rise and fall of their voices for hours some nights, for as long as it took for them to gradually calm."

But this night, when the voices went from "full pitch to silent in a moment", Alex knew something was wrong. Her mother is suddenly at her door, dragging her out of bed, into the car and driving away from the house and Alex's father. 

"That twenty-four hours, starting with the moment we left home, was burned into my memory. ..... I can't forget the grease and the smoke, the flannel on the skin, the fear of realising that my life was taking a ninety-degree turn." 

And off they go. Ma and Alex. On a journey from Virginia to California, to the places Ma had lived as child and as a teenager; places she lived in foster care, run away from and places full of secrets that only now was she ready to share with her daughter. Her mother is going to "write in the details" as if the "stories had finally backed up in her and she had to let them out." 

Told from Alex's point of view this is as much her mother's story as Alex's. Alex's observations and insights about her mother are poignant, often revealing a troubled person and someone who has suffered trauma, but always utterly exquisitely conveyed with beautiful description and imagery. I could not help but become enraptured with both characters and totally absorbed in their journey - both physical and emotionally. Even though Alex is 13 and her mother's daughter, Taylor manages the narrative in such a way that it is effective and works very well. It feels authentic and real.

I felt great empathy for Ma as her past was revealed and the obstacles she has overcome explained. Although she has taken Alex away from their family home, and then often leaves her for hours in small, cheap accommodation while she goes off to work, and although she uproots Alex again and again as their journey requires, she is a character who evokes sympathy and interest. A lot of her past is told to us through Alex as she recounts the stories her mother is now choosing to share about her life but this cleverly seems to create a closeness to both characters rather than any sense of distance or that we are learning things too vicariously. To be honest I was so mesmerised by the prose I was completely carried along anyway and just couldn't help but keep highlighting passages of writing that I found truly striking. 

The Lauras is just as much of a coming of age story about Alex too. This drive across the states with her mother is just as much an emotional journey for Alex as it is her mother and just as much a revelation and learning for her character as it is her mothers. There is so much in this book about fitting in, hiding and disguising yourself, wanting to belong and wanting to shield yourself that there are pages and pages of pertinent, insightful, well written observations and comments about people and the relationships formed between them. And Alex is a dignified, thoughtful, reflective narrator whose expression is remarkable and arresting. Her descriptions of the people she meets - particularly at school - are vivid.

"[They] talked over each other until their voices blended together in a counterpoint of contradiction." 

And then there are the Lauras; Ma's friends and the people who have had pivotal roles in her life or been at her side during significant moments in her childhood, teenage and adult life. 

"Why do all the women in your stories have the same name?" Alex asks as we meet more and more of these Lauras over the course of the novel. Ma's reply is lengthy and detailed, but it is very moving too and more a description of how influential friendships and people can be at particular moments in your life. It reveals even more about the holes in Ma's life, the emptiness, the emotional deprivation and the constant search to recreate something meaningful with people. Taylor uses the Lauras to contemplate the effect of loss and the way in which perhaps our mind seeks out connections it thinks will bring it happiness and security - the way perhaps we seek to make ourselves fulfilled and happy without truly being able to see what is actually happening to us. 

This isn't a sad novel, it is not a heavy going novel. There are some difficult truths acknowledged and there are some passages that are full of raw, realistic and very honest writing about taboo subjects and the ugly nature of relationships and parenting but I did not find it an oppressive read or depressing. I was caught up in the journey with Alex and Ma and I wanted to find out all about them. I was waiting with Alex until her mother gave her the answers she was waiting for and told her the stories she wanted to hear. I was completely transfixed by the relationship between Ma and Alex and the dynamics between them as they traced back a life of hardship and struggle. I devoured the pages and devoured the development of the characters. I hung on Alex's words and was constantly impressed with Taylor's exposition and writing. 

"I didn't have the child's blind trust in the omnipotence of parents anymore. I had eaten the apple and now knew that Ma was just like me, that she probably didn't know what to do right now anymore than I would, that her only advantage was a rapidly narrowing gulf of experience." 

Taylor's prose is without doubt eloquent, captivating and vivid. The Lauras is without doubt a beautifully observed novel with stunning writing and engrossing characters. 

I'm so glad I requested this book on a whim and I feel so massively rewarded from Taylor's writing. It is excellent literary fiction.  I shall definitely be reading her first book The Shore, and looking out for anything else she writes in the future.

If you like Ali Smith, Helen Dunmore and Margaret Atwood then you will enjoy this!

The Lauras is available in Hardback and as an ebook and will be published in paperback on 6th April 2017 by Windmill Books.

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