The Lauras by Sara Taylor
I do love a road-trip novel, as long as it’s not On the Road, which I dutifully read and yawned through in my twenties. I feel like I’ve read a lot of American road-trip novels – but it appears the majority were pre-blog including Lolita, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – all modern classics. Only The Ice Age by Kirsten Reed (reviewed here), in which a seventeen year old girl hooks up with a older hippy and dreams of vampires, and YA novel Paper Towns by John Green (on my old blog here) bear any comparisons at all in recent years – but none of them have the parent and child dynamic of the Lauras – only Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (reviewed here) has that, and arguably it’s not a ‘road-trip’ novel in the usual sense of a car being involved! But I digress,..
I really hope that The Lauras can, in posterity, be classified with those modern classic road trip novels – it was that good! Simply written, narrated by Alex who is thirteen. It begins with Alex’s parents fighting:
So on that last night, when they went from full pitch to silent in a moment, my stomach fizzed with swift fear: they never broke off in full flow. Then the sound of my mother’s boots on tile as she came down the hall. When the bedroom door squeaked open I went stiff and limp at once, hoping that she’d think i was asleep and go back to the fight.
“Get up, Alex. Now.”
They drive, heading for the state border and the sea. It’s August, and they reach the beach.
She breathed deep and I did too, taking in the smell of salt and decay, ozone and seaweed: the strange, intoxicating, iodine-laced breath of life.
The ocean is the lover our species never got over.
That last sentence is just beautiful in its simplicity.
Already, just a day or so into their road trip, Alex is beginning to see Ma differently, not just as a mother, but also as a person. Someone who had a life before Alex – and it’s that life she’s driven to sort out. As they travel from town to town, meeting up with old friends, settling old scores, often staying put for a few months while Ma earns enough money for them to embark on the next stage of their trip, Ma tells Alex about the ‘Lauras’, a set of girls/women who had a profound effect on Ma.
One of the key parts to this story is that we’re never told what gender Alex is. At thirteen, Alex is about to hit puberty, and realises that the careful adrogyny’ that Alex had always cultivated may become an issue. The UK hardback dustjacket doesn’t take sides – it shows folds in a map, representing the map that Ma keeps track of all the stops she wants to make on. By contrast, the UK paperback cover shows the back of a young girl – or is it? It’s a tease, and to be honest by the end of the novel, I really didn’t care whether Alex was a girl, a boy, or any other gender in between. I did really care for both Alex and Ma though, and hoped that Ma would achieve the resolution she needed, and that Alex would find an identity to be happy with.
As with any road trip travelling from town to town, state to state, motel to motel, waitressing job to waitressing job, cheapo flat to cheapo flat – there is a cyclical nature to the story with elements of languor, but these brief lulls never last – you know that Ma will tell Alex more about her life, that maybe we’ll meet another ‘Laura’. The end of the road trip, when it comes for Ma, felt completely natural, Alex has further to go. But, as Ma said, near the beginning of the book when Alex asks about home:
“That’s a time, not a place. And time only goes one way.”
The Lauras is a pageturning novel, but in rather a different way to most books. There was that feeling for me of just a few miles more on the journey, a few more pages, and so I kept turning them over, enjoying the trip, looking at the scenery out the window, enjoying the company.
I’ve not read Taylor’s debut, The Shore, but it was also shortlisted for this prize a couple of years ago. I know it was highly thought of and I long to read it, and whatever Taylor writes next. This was a very strong start to my reading of the shortlist.
Source: Review copy for the Young Writer of the Year Award Shadow Panel.