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GUARDIAN Helen Dunmore Saturday 6 August 2016 The Lauras by Sara Taylor review – an engrossing transgender road trip Alex doesn’t have a gender – and Ma is OK with that as they cross America in search of the past in this exploration of identity and the bond between mother and child Sara Taylor made an impressive debut in 2015 with The Shore, a novel as gripping as it was technically adventurous. It went on to be shortlisted for the Guardian first book award and longlisted for the Baileys prize. There were some structural problems, but she emerged as a strong voice that was both lyrical and down-to-earth, and as a writer who possessed a confident knowledge of her own fictional territory. Taylor’s sense of place is one of her greatest strengths. She writes about versions of America that few outsiders ever see: a string of little islands off the Virginia coast, truck-stops in deepest Georgia, makeshift apartments above grocery stores, a fishing town in Mississippi. There is nothing gratuitous about her writing. All of these places are there because they matter and because being in them changes the characters or reveals their histories. The Lauras is a road movie of a novel, which opens with 13-year-old Alex listening to a family row downstairs. There have been rows before and Alex is used to them, but this time things are different. Ma slams into the bedroom, ready to leave home and to take Alex with her. So begins an extraordinary journey from state to state, steering by a map of memory that traces the course of Ma’s early life. On this map there are stars that mark the places where she was fostered, or where she squatted derelict buildings. The stars also show those whom she loved or feared, those who cared for her, abandoned her, ill-treated her or opened new worlds to her. This history of flight has been unknown to her child, and now it becomes part of Alex’s passage through adolescence. Ma was a roving child and a wanderer who found her own way to grow up despite everything. Whether Alex is like her or not, the novel will discover. Ma’s map is also marked by five girls and women, all with the same name: the Lauras, who imprinted themselves on Ma’s life and have never been forgotten. At one point, Alex asks why they were all called Laura, speculating that perhaps Ma has covered other identities with a generic name. But the answer is that they really were. The first Laura was a childhood best friend, and, as Ma says to Alex, “you try to get the new Laura to fit into the hole that the old Laura left”. Naming and identity are so central to this novel that even to write about it causes technical problems. Our language has not yet evolved to speak comfortably outside binary gender. Personal pronouns are intended to define, and in order to avoid these Taylor writes in Alex’s voice so that non-binary selfhood appears slowly, casually, naturally, as part of the essence of the story and of who Alex is. The difficulties Alex faces are, on one level, those of any 13-year-old who is sometimes overwhelmed by a new sexuality, while at other times fully a child, sleeping in...