This book is a fantastic coming of age novel, following a teen called Alex, as they take a road trip with their mother. The book examines Alex and Alex’s mum as full, flawed human beings, and shows Alex growing up, becoming independent, and growing to understand their mum as a person with a past and a life outside motherhood.
The book is told in Alex’s voice, which makes it easier for Taylor to initially avoid the question of Alex’s gender and preferred pronouns – when Alex addresses it, it is made clear that Alex has no desire to identify with one gender or another, and I felt Taylor handled the portrayal sensitively. As you might expect, Alex’s disinterest in presenting as male or female impacts their experiences in the book, their awakening sexuality, and their relationship to their peers at school, but it isn’t the central focus. There is little to no angsting about the situation on Alex’s part, and this isn’t an ‘issues’ book.
Instead the book divides its focus between telling Alex’s current story, travelling with their mum, and revealing the layers of Alex’s mum’s past and the various women called Laura she has known, who each influenced her life in a different way. Alex’s mum was in and out of foster care, living rough, moving all over the country and has a complicated past. Her stories open the window onto the realisation we all have about our parents being only human, and humans with lives outside their children.
I love the portrayal of the relationship between Alex and their mum (interestingly, despite the theme of Alex’s mum having her own life, I don’t think we ever get to hear her name). There is love and respect, along with fear on both sides- Alex fears their mum’s anger when they sneak off to another city, and Alex’s mum fears Alex getting hurt. I also liked Alex’s exploration of which parent they take after more, another idea that I think we all play with.
The plot is slow and winding, and the character’s progress across the country is slowed by realistic financial considerations and Alex’s need to go to school. This isn’t a tense thriller, but a rumination on growing up, parent-child relationships, and wanderlust. Taylor’s writing is beautiful, creating a believable voice for Alex that mixes poetic imagery, ruminations about human nature and a direct, colloquial tone:
‘The ocean is the lover our species never got over. We crawled out of its arms to stumble and stand on solid ground, and have pined for it ever since. It’s the tragic romance to end them all. And the ocean hasn’t forgotten, hasn’t forgiven that abandonment—try and climb back into its bed without due precaution and it will kill your ass.’
‘Memory is slippery, not even like a fish but like an eel, like an ice cube, like a clot of blood whose membranous skin can barely contain internal shifting liquidity. It’s something that, the firmer you try to grasp it, the weaker the hold you have on it, the less trustworthy it becomes. But it doesn’t matter what really happened, does it?’
In conclusion, 8/10, I recommend. A thoughtful and exploratory read, perfect to curl up with on the sofa and finish in an afternoon.
PS: at risk of SPOILERS there is sexual assault in the book. I have a fairly low tolerance for dark literature and I was OK. Your mileage may vary, however!