I remember there being a flurry of blog activity around the release of The Shore by Sara Taylor last year, and whilst I wanted to read the book I didn’t have chance and the moment seemed to pass me by. So when I saw The Lauras had been released by the same writer, and I had a small opening in my reading diary, coupled with the fact that they had a copy at my marvellous library, all elements converged quite neatly with the result that I have, in fact, read the book. I don’t know how it compares to The Shore, but it is a good read.
The Lauras begins on a morning when teenage Alex is woken by his/her mother (Ma) and dragged out of the house. Thus begins a road trip which will span the duration of the book. What has driven them from the house, what makes this row between Alex’s parents more sinister than usual is unclear, but that Ma does not want to be found soon becomes clear. She ditches her phone, shreds her cards and changes their car. All in an effort not to be found. The nature of their trip is at first unclear, but eventually Alex learns about the ‘Lauras’. A series of women, not all of which were actually called Laura but who became known by that name, who had a massive impact on Ma’s life. Their quest for the Lauras takes them across the country: from Florida to Texas to Canada. And all the while Alex is growing up.
The Lauras is more than just a road trip / coming of age story, though it has those features, that structure, and like most road trip and coming of age stories it moves at a clip. But underlying all of this is the question of identity. Most transparently is the question of Alex’s identity. Alex is androgynous (by choice), neither girl not boy, male or female. It is an identity that Alex does not identify with, as explained here:
“It’s bothered me for as long as I can remember, the way the human compulsion to classify stands at odds with my feeling of falling outside the available categories. When I was a child at home it mattered less: my father was Man, my mother was Woman, I was myself. But when I went out into the world, or even to my grandparents’ house, everyone seemed determined to put me into a box that I had no business being in, expected me to think and act and want in ways that were consistent with a label with which I could not identify.”
But it isn’t just Alex that is more than just a label, not just a cliché or expectation. The theme runs throughout the whole book. There are the Lauras, for example. What unifies them, what gives them this identity, is not just the name – or in fact not the name at all – but that Ma labelled them Laura. At some point someone called Laura had a massive effect on Ma, she imprinted on her, and from that point on everyone she encountered who meant something to her became a Laura. Alex finds out on the trip that their Dad is not officially their Dad. Ma herself is a mingle of identities. She is not just the runaway, the Italian-American migrant, she’s not just someone struggling with poverty, a poor child, not just the waitress, thief, prostitute (possibly), not just Ma. Beyond the labels, the clichés and the stereotypes, everyone is a person. Like the quote from Alex above, the human compulsion to classify stands at odds with the experience of basically everyone on the planet. We are all individuals. I think this is the real power of the book, the way it strips away at all those identities, the expectations they bring, and reminds us that to treat someone as a person, an individual, to ask them what their story is without assuming it from the sum of their features is the way it should always be. And it’s an important point, especially at a time when labels – stereotypes – seem to be so influential: from migrants to Mexicans, the ‘radicalised’ Muslim to ‘feminazis’, the danger of determining character, worth and intention based on the possession of a certain characteristic – whether that is a biological or ideological one – has never seemed so present.
The Lauras is an excellent book, though I had to sit back and think about it – write about it – to realise it. It is harsh in places, frustrating at times and it rumbles along looking like one thing and being something entirely else. Which is what it is about in the end. It is a clever, well written book that also happens to be a great read wrapped up in a compelling story with believable, well drawn characters. What more could you possibly ask for?
The Lauras is published by William Heineman