Following her debut ‘The Shore’ which was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2015, Sara Taylor has been nominated again for the same prize with her second novel ‘The Lauras’. I read it several months ago before the shortlist was announced but didn’t have enough time to review it, so I have revisited it this week ahead of our shadow panel meeting on Friday when we will choose our winner. ‘The Lauras’ is a road trip novel in which Ma and thirteen-year-old Alex leave their home and Alex’s father behind in Virginia and travel across North America visiting five places which all hold some significance in Ma’s past. Ma attempts to track down a friend from each of these places, all of whom are called Laura and were an important part of Ma’s life at the time.
The organisers of the Young Writer of the Year Award held an event for book bloggers in London yesterday, where we heard four of the five shortlisted authors read from and discuss their books. The chair, Robert Collins, commented that one aspect the books all have in common is that they all involve some form of travel across multiple settings. The road trip element of ‘The Lauras’ is a clear example of this and while it means that the plot is more straightforward in a linear sense compared to ‘The Shore’, it is just as complex and ambitious in scope. The pace is fairly languid with lots of flashbacks and there is space to explore what the journey itself means for the characters and the eventual consequences.
As well as travel, I think all five of the shortlisted books explore the concept of ambiguity very effectively in different ways: the complexity of Steven Runciman’s contradictions in ‘Outlandish Knight’, the concept of death in ‘The End of the Day’ (both to be reviewed next week), the dreamlike tone of the interlinked stories in The Lucky Ones and miscommunication between characters in Conversations with Friends. Again, ‘The Lauras’ probably has the most obvious ambiguity of all which is that Alex’s gender is never specified as he/she doesn’t identify as either male or female – something that Taylor says she didn’t set out to do when she started writing the novel but it eventually became a central theme almost by accident, and a very timely one at that in the context of recent debates in the United States and elsewhere. The way in which this issue is handled is striking in that it isn’t even made apparent to the reader that Alex is non-binary until quite far into the book.
Overall, ‘The Lauras’ is an excellent second novel and it is encouraging to see Taylor developing as a writer and continuing to push boundaries. Her thoughtful portrayal of Alex shows that her strengths lie in developing characters who don’t wish to conform to the expectations of society and I’m interested to see if she continues this theme in her work in the future.