Friday 15 December 2017

Parents' routine row leads to mum's epic journey of discovery

Fiction: The Lauras, Sara Taylor, William Heinemann €16.99

Sara Taylor's 'writing has a very filmic quality'
Sara Taylor's 'writing has a very filmic quality'

Claire Coughlan

The sounds of a heated exchange between a woman and her partner in the dead of night, which open this novel are very familiar to the couple's child Alex, who is listening out for what's about to happen. The narrator says of the routine rows: "I could feel one coming like the promise of a storm thickening the air." However, what happens next is a turning point. The woman picks up a packed bag that she has kept in the hallway for as long as her child can remember, and takes Alex with her.

Beginning in Virginia, "Ma" and Alex embark on an epic road trip that takes them all over the US, as Ma uses an atlas annotated with old scores she needs to settle and promises on which she wants to make good.

Alex is a teenager who is at the age when a child begins to see their parent as a fallible being.

Alex is also gender fluid, and many characters throughout the book are anxious to find out which gender Alex definitively belongs to, even resulting in a serious assault at a school Alex only briefly attends in Reno. This raises interesting questions about people's unquenchable need to categorise each other.

Alex sums it up in the book, musing that: "Knowing someone's sex doesn't tell you anything. About that person, anyway. I suppose the need to know, how knowing changes the way you behave towards them, the assumptions you make about who they are and how they live, says an awful lot about you."

Although Alex is the narrator and we see the events through the often confusing prism of adolescence, The Lauras is really the story of a life, that of "Ma" (whose name we never find out). From her birth in Sicily, to her various stints at group foster homes as a teenager in the US, to her life as a runaway, it's a portrait of one person, and her resilience in the face of all that life had thrown at her. The "Lauras" of the title refer to the women Ma had loved and been influenced by along the way.

The Lauras is a rip-roaring road trip novel, peopled by vivid landscapes and larger-than-life characters. The writing has a very filmic quality, think Thelma & Louise, only with the central relationship being that of a mother and child. It's a book with a lot of heart, and plenty of soul.

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