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Review: Debuts from Sara Taylor, Ken Murray, and Lauren Holmes

The Shore
By Sara Taylor, Bond Street, 303 pages, $32

A cover blurb compares Sara Taylor's debut novel to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which does make sense, but the author of whom The Shore is most reminiscent is William Faulkner, albeit with some updates. A series of islands off the coast of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay, the Shore has been isolated from the mainland for so long that even when connected by a causeway it remains insular, a world of its own. Such a locale gives perfect licence to Southern Gothic's calling cards: the good-but-eccentric, the once-great-but-derelict, the violent, criminal and supernatural, all packaged in a Faulknerian, shambling family tree with inextricable links to place. The Shore concerns two branches descended from Medora Slater, a half-Shawnee healer. As in Faulkner, multiple narrators tell this saga, but here the women claim their share, from the family's arrival in the islands in the 1870s to a post-apocalyptic future. In both ambition and execution, a remarkable debut.

Eulogy
By Ken Murray, Tightrope, 282 pages, $21.95

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Eulogy opens in 2000 with 30-year-old William Oaks finding reasonable happiness in Toronto, convinced he has escaped the toxic environment of his childhood: the twin strictures of his parents' fundamentalist faith and their pyramid-scheme diet, alongside their loveless, three-decades-long murder-suicide of a marriage. So when his parents die after their car careens off a bridge near the town where William grew up, his feelings are complicated. Their only child, he delivers a statement-of-facts eulogy at their funeral, only to get beaten up by the church's parishioners. This is the heavy setup, the shorter part one, to Ken Murray's powerful, poignant debut. Part two, the bulk of the novel, is William's extended annotation of the eulogy, an honest and clear-eyed account of his parents' faults balanced by his growing tenderness for his origins. According to convention, a book about grief has no right to be a page-turner, but this one is.

Barbara the Slut and Other People
By Lauren Holmes, Riverhead, 272 pages, $35.95

This collection is composed of 10 first-person stories, all but one with female narrators, all concerning modern, amorphous relationships, not always sexual or romantic, but in every one there is a young woman who is unabashed about enjoying sex or assured in stating what she does or doesn't like, or confident in what she is willing to explore. As Barbara, the teenager in the title story, says, "Maybe I wasn't hard to get, but I did have standards." Such a frank, wide-ranging depiction of female sexuality is – still – relatively rare, which may be why these stories also all highlight problems in communication, from name-calling ("Barbara the Slut") to meanings lost in translation, to hearing impairment. The title of the opening story, about a college girl who travels to Mexico to come out to her mother, puts it bluntly: "How am I supposed to talk to you?" That's a good question.

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