One morning our teenage narrator, Alex, wakes to the sound of fighting parents and is soon on a road-trip with a mother whose guide is a map scratched with statements and memories – ‘Free Love Commune’; ‘Dead girl found in bathtub’; ‘Crazy Laura’; ‘Den of prostitution and overpriced wine’; ‘ Kissing Laura’ ; ‘Brainwashed brood mother’ – and a yellow trail, ultimately leading to ‘LAURA’
Taylor’s debut novel, ‘The Shore’ got a terrific fan-fair and reviews but since seems to have slipped out of sight. I hope that this fate doesn’t beset ‘The Lauras’ which is as beautifully written as Taylor’s debut but is a more focussed and warmer piece of fiction. There is nothing particularly original about the premise: Mother and child set out on a journey and learn about one another on the way, but what could have been a sentimental drag is sharp and real and could, through squinted eyes, be a sort-of sequel to Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Housekeeping’. In that wonderful novel, a teenage niece comes to understand the need for life and experience which is embodied in her vagabond aunt, Sylvie. Recognising this lust for life in one another, as that novel ends the two set out on the road and a new life together…
…and Taylor’s book has Mother recounting the travelling tales of her younger self, explaining, clarifying to her child, who tries to piece together the mystery of why they are on the road and exactly what they are heading to, all the while coming to terms with their own place in the world, pushing and testing the limits of their relationship and working out just how alike mother and child actually are.
‘While she slept I sat on the warm sand in front of the car and stared at the water. I wasn’t listening, wasn’t really watching, and so was surprised when a handful of teenagers wandered from the parking lot and onto the beach. They were a few years older than I was then, a few decades younger than I am now, and they talked too loudly and laughed too much, moved with a long-limbed grace and touched each other with a calculated nonchalance that betrayed attraction. As I watched them I became slowly aware of a place low in my belly and between my hips, a strange hungry place bone deep that felt oddly tight and prickling, as though my pelvis needed to sneeze.’
Taylor is unafraid to take a risk, and here she makes the teenage child gender neutral and just as the characters refuse to categorise, so does she: we never know where Alex sits on the gender spectrum:
‘But no matter what clothes he put me into, how much make up he slapped on or scraped off, there remained something off, something other about the character I saw in the mirror, and our play only confirmed what I’d long felt: being either and neither and both at once fit me more closely than the other options on offer.’
This works amazingly well, and acts as a mirror to the reader: inviting you to wonder about the character’s gender and the instant categorisation which comes to the mind of someone used to thinking of gender in binary terms. This comes across most starkly when Alex has sexual contact with a man: as a result my mind instantly cast Alex’s gender and I was forced to ask myself why : why did this incident enable me to categorise Alex? I hope the personal space created when reading this book enables all readers to think about gender and their approach to it – which can only be a good thing.
But it’s not only the reader who is presented with a gender challenge: it also makes the reviewer think twice when writing about the novel. When writing about Alex it becomes clear that the binary pronouns of ‘he’ and ‘she’ are no longer adequate. My best attempt is to use s-he, the hyphen used to represent the gender spectrum, with ‘he’ and ‘she’ as the polar extremes, but as you’ll see, I tried to write without any gender category for Alex – and just about got away with it, I hope.
Warm yet sharp, unsentimental yet emotional, challenging and written in clear, beautiful language, Taylor’s second novel is everything I’d hoped it would be…and more.
P.S. If you are interested, here are ‘The Lauras’ as used in my illustration:
Top Row (left to right):Laura Marling (singer/songwriter), Laura Brannigan (singer/songwriter), Laura Dean (actor), Laura Wingfield (character from The Glass Menagerie, as played by Jane Wyman), Laura Jesson (character from Brief Encounter, as played by Celia Johnson)
Middle Row (left to right): Laura Ingalls Wilder (writer), Laura Ashley (designer), Laura Petrie (character from The Dick Van Dyke Show, as played by Mary Tyler Moore) , Laura Mulvey (film writer/theorist), Laura Nyro (singer/songwriter)
Bottom Row (left to right): Laura Linney (actor), Laura Roslin (character from Battlestar Galactica, as played by Mary McDonnell) , Laura Carmicheal (actor) , Laura Palmer (Character from ‘Twin Peaks’ as played by Sheryl Lee), Laura Mvula (singer/ songwriter)