A common name. An uncommon story.
Publisher: William Heinemann (Random House)
First Published: 4th August 2016
Date Reviewed: 22nd August 2016
When Ma wakes Alex and says they’re leaving, it’s a surprise; Ma and Dad often argue but life goes on. Not this time – Ma has a plan, a long journey to various states, to find various Lauras, and Alex is to join her. School’s about to finish for the summer anyway and Alex is glad – it’s starting to become difficult. (If you read my review of Taylor’s last book you may remember I found summarising that difficult, too.)
The Lauras is Taylor’s second book and it features the same general excellence and talent for seeing right into things and commenting on them, as The Shore.
The Lauras centres around the road trip, the journey that holds everything together. It’s that symbolic use of a journey and the progression of time, growing into one’s self, learning how to be comfortable in your skin. Taylor’s wonderful prose, full of her own dialect, flows slowly, letting you enjoy the story and grounding you in the setting. It’s the sort of book that, if you’re not from America, sounds like it’s set in a whole other world – blisteringly hot days, southern states. Taylor says what needs to be said and nothing more. Things aren’t hidden but they aren’t overly apparent either; they simmer in the background. It’s quite like Thelma And Louise – various bits of plot scattered throughout conversation.
There’s a lack of pronouns in this book but you don’t really notice it at first. Alex is a unisex name therefore it’s really down to your experience as to which sex you imagine Alex to be. Know more men called Alex and maybe the character will be to you a teenage boy. Know more women and the reverse may happen. The use of a unisex name is intentional; throughout the book you get snippets of description – clothes, objects, things relating to the character – that question your visual of Alex.
Genderlessness – Alex is happily androgynous. As one great section towards the end shows – a scene in which a gay friend gets Alex to play dress-up – gender can be an either/or situation, a neither situation, or both at once. The great thing about this subject here – well, one of them as I’m not sure a review could deal with all of them – is that this is an excellent book for discussion. Taylor’s decision is to not tell you one way or the other about Alex. (Will you find out anyway? The point Taylor makes is that there doesn’t need to be any pigeon-holing.) You wonder and that is okay. In writing Alex, Taylor is looking at our social need to label. It’s one of the biggest, core things in society, in regards to our forming relations and emphasising with people and Taylor shows that this is understandable, as it’s been this way for a long time, whilst showing how little gender matters. And, crucially, why it doesn’t matter.
Most of this exploration happens in the subtext. Taylor is all about getting you to think for yourself and without telling you to do so, though by the end of the book the subject’s been covered in a direct manner – the author waits until you’ve had time to process your thoughts by yourself. It’s a fairly short section focused on bullying and as with everything else it’s to the point. It’s a sensitive exploration and highly accessible.
Taylor uses Alex’s coming of age in her detailing of the mother’s story, contrasting, comparing them. It’s interesting how vivid a picture of the mother you get, and Taylor’s inclination for the reader’s imagination to hold sway is active here. Your image of Ma, whatever it is, is correct.
Ma’s story unravels away from Alex’s, during it, but the two narratives get their time. And – you knew I’d get to it eventually – Ma is where the title of the book comes in. There have been various people called Laura in her life and this extract says everything you need to know:
“Why are they all called Laura?” I asked.
“Say what?” Ma said.
“Is that a code name, so you don’t give away who they really are? Why do all the women in your stories have the same name?”
She’d been quiet for a while before answering, so I wasn’t sure if she was inventing a cover story, if I’d been right in guessing she’d rechristened them all to make the remembering easier, or if she was trying to determine herself why it was that so many of the women who had had a lasting impact on her were named Laura.
“First of all,” she said, “they’re not all Laura. You’re conveniently forgetting everyone else. My girlfriend who ran off with the preacher wasn’t named Laura. Second, when we got to Florida you were complaining that every kid in school was named Jason or Brittany – it just so happens that when I was born everyone was naming their daughter ‘Laura’. And third -” she paused for a drag on her cigarette – “well. When you’re eight or nine, say, and you make your first best friend, they’re the greatest person in the world and you know that you’ll be friends forever. But one day one of you moves away and they leave a vacancy. And then you meet someone with the same name, and because you’re eight part of you thinks not exactly that they’re the same person, but they were made from the same block of clay, maybe. And you try to get the new Laura to fit into the hole the old Laura left. And when you get older it doesn’t matter that you know things don’t work like that, because your ears will be primed and your heart will beat faster at the sound of that name. It will stand out to you and make something inside you go soft, and since it stands out you’ll pay more attention to them, and if you pay more attention more often than not you wind up being friends with them, until you look back when you’re forty years old and realize that you have a long string of Lauras behind you who were all important, and it isn’t just coincidence but the eight-year-old you trying to fill in the hole that the first Laura made.”
There’s no concrete ending, the perfect road trip never ends and you wouldn’t want to remember a regional destination. But it’s not an ambiguous ending either – things not answered aren’t necessary to know.
The Lauras is a superb book that is likely to stay with you long past the border, long after you’ve left the cheap apartment in nowhere-land. You won’t need much, just a bookmark because you won’t want to lose your place and you’re likely devour this book despite wanting to go slowly to soak it all up.
September 6, 2016, 4:26 pm
Intrigued by this. I love the idea of a ‘genderless’ Alex.
I had sent an email but knowing how they can get swallowed up as spam wanted to thank you here for my book which arrived yesterday.
September 7, 2016, 10:37 am
Tracy: At the risk of repeating myself, it’s very well done. No worries, you’re welcome!