Sara Taylor’s debut novel draws the reader into a harsh and deeply connected world. In a group of small islands off the coast of Virginia, a small community of outsiders has struggled to survive against all odds, not only for their own sake but for the continuation of their family lines. Interlinking familial connections act as bonds, though not necessarily bonds of love, between the members of the community. It is frequently necessary to refer to the two family trees outlined in the front of the book to make sense of the narrative, which takes the reader through chapters which jump, apparently randomly, backwards and forwards through time, between the late nineteenth century and 2143. The pace of the writing is such that the reader feels compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.
There are resonances here of Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, with each chapter acting as a self-contained short story, yet also providing a piece in the overall jigsaw of the book and the timeline of the story of the Island itself. There is an overriding sense of place in the islands as the land which pulls the stories and characters together. The strong connections to the islands are such that characters are often drawn back there after many years, as in the separate but interconnected stories of Benny and his niece, Chloe – As Chloe says, ”What matters is that I have the stars, the marsh, the smudge of the barrier islands again, that I can trace the Milky Way, that my feet remember the shape of this land.”
Violence and brutality, often in the form of domestic abuse, pervade the narrative and the timeline. While the overriding theme of the novel is the violence perpetrated by men against women, such as the vicious multiple rape of Ellie, Chloe’s mother, there are also examples of retaliatory violence from the female protagonists, such as Medora’s gelding of her father’s favourite horse in 1876 as revenge for his brutal treatment of her, and Chloe’s murder of Cabel Bloxom, who had been bullying her and her sister Renee.
The narrative focalises between different protagonists, and uses the first and the third person narrator in different chapters. The first and penultimate chapters bookend the story of Chloe and her murder of Cabel Bloxom, told in the first person from Chloe’s perspective. The resolution of Chloe’s story in the chapter entitled “Missing Pieces” ties together many of the disparate elements of the book and of the intertwined family trees. Otherwise, the first person narrative occurs in male voices, such as that of Benny, in 1981 and Simian in the final denouement chapter, where the effects of disease and mutations are demonstrated in the characters of Simian and Wink.
The use of language differentiates protagonists, such as in the strangely antiquated and yet somehow surreal dialogue of “Halfman Simian” in 2143. He has lived on his wits, constantly encountering antagonism and hardship as a result of his genetic mutation: “We legged it back across the Island, her trailing her silvery laugh in the moonlight all the way behind her, making for the light-watch ‘n’ the gully ‘n’ the hidey-hole where first I’d found that copper gourd.” Just as disease has caused and perpetuated mutations in various characters, so their dialogue has mutated as well.
The fast paced narrative filled with hard-hitting stories and dialogue leaves the reader breathless and keen to turn the next page. It’s not a book for the faint hearted but one which totally absorbs the reader and one which would benefit from a second reading at a slower pace to bring all the pieces together and to fully process and appreciate all the wide ranging elements. This was worthy of inclusion on the longlist for the 2015 Baileys’ Prize and I look forward to Taylor’s second novel.