The setting of Sara Taylor’s ambitious and unique debut novel is The Shore—three islands off the coast of Virginia, just south of Maryland, “trailing out into the Atlantic Ocean like someone’s dripped paint.” Parksley Island is the biggest, with two bridges to the mainland and little villages all up its length. Off Parksley’s northeast coast is Chincoteague Island, where “the people with money” have summer homes; further east is Assateague Island, now a national park and home of the wild ponies.
In this atmospheric novel, each character is steeped in these islands and their lore—some leaving briefly, but all eventually returning, if only in their minds and memories. Taylor’s saga moves back and forth in time, highlighting characters at different moments in their lives, gradually revealing how their stories overlap and come together, like a slowly assembled jigsaw puzzle. The earliest inhabitant portrayed by the author is Medora, a mixed-race Shawnee woman who comes to the islands from Kentucky with her husband in 1876. Four generations later, we meet twins Sally and Mitch—Sally inheriting from Medora’s grandson “the gift” of bringing rain on command when the crops are dry.
Out-of-wedlock pregnancies, rape, drug addiction and murder are all part of Taylor’s story, with the isolation of the islands undoubtedly playing its own pivotal role in her characters’ decisions. Events on the mainland take their toll as well, as we learn of the slow demise of Assateague in the early 20th century: the closing of the school, kids “skiffing across the channel” to Chincoteague for classes, or not going at all. By the early 21st century, “the old families are dying out” and kids leave as soon as they can, few wanting to work in the chicken plants that are the only viable sources of jobs.
The Shore will appeal to readers who enjoy family sagas and like to lose themselves in an atmospheric setting—think Pat Conroy combined with Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.