Fiction – hardcover; Chatto & Windus; 368 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
No one writes about family the way that Anne Tyler writes about family. She not only looks at what makes them tick — the complicated relationships, the prejudices, the little gripes and irritations, the humour and heartaches, the love and support, and the ways in which myths and stories develop and get passed down through the generations — she makes you genuinely care about, and identify with, the people she writes about.
Her latest novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, is a classic example of her talent and skill at crafting absorbing and totally believable tales about ordinary Americans living out their relatively safe and comfortable lives. It’s her 20th novel (and said to be her last) and features her hallmark eccentricity, perceptiveness and humour. I’d also argue that it’s a fitting pinnacle to her long-established career.
Time to move on?
Set in her (usual) Baltimore, it centres on a married couple, Red and Abby Whitshank, who are approaching that time in life when they must consider whether to remain living in their much-loved family home or move into some kind of accommodation for the elderly. Both are battling health problems: Red has had a minor heart attack and is going deaf; Abby is beginning to wander off and lose her memory, perhaps a sign of dementia.
Their four adult children — Denny, Amanda, Jeannie and Stem — decide that it’s no longer safe for them to live alone and they call a family meeting.
Red said, ‘What’s up?’
‘Well,’ Amanda said, ‘we’ve been thinking about the house.’
‘What about it?’
‘We’re thinking it’s a lot to look after, what with you and Mom getting older.’
‘I could look after this house with one hand tied behind my back,’ Red said.
You could tell from the pause that followed that his children were considering whether to take issue with this. Surprisingly it was Abby who came to their aid. ‘Well, of course you can, sweetie,’ she said, ‘but don’t you think it’s time you gave yourself a rest?’
His children half laughed, half groaned.
‘You see what I have to put up with,’ Abby told them. ‘He will not wear his hearing aids! And then when he tries to fake it, he makes the most unlikely guesses. He’s just… perverse! I tell him I want to go to the farmers’ market and he says, “You’re joining the army?” ‘
From this pivotal point in the novel, A Spool of Blue Thread goes back through two generations to look at both sides of Red and Abby’s own upbringing to see how events and the course of their lives — and their own parents’ lives — brought them to this moment in time.
What results is a multi-layered narrative that explores how the Whitshanks rose to become a rather comfortable and well-regarded family despite their poor and impoverished roots, which stretch back to the Great Depression. It shows how social aspiration became the driving force for material comfort and success, how changes in 20th century America provided new opportunities for hard-working people — especially Red’s father Junior, a carpenter — to generate wealth and buy (and build) the kinds of homes they could previously only dream about. (Indeed, this novel is as much a story about the history of the Whitshank family home as it is about the family itself.)
Dotted throughout this narrative are the highs and lows, the funny moments, the secrets, the dreams and desires of one ordinary American family trying to navigate their way through a constant flux of change.
A roller-coaster journey through one family’s history
I realise I haven’t gone into the nitty-gritty of this novel, which largely comprises set pieces (or events) in this family’s history, but to do so would ruin the enjoyment for others yet to read it. What I loved about this book was the roller-coaster like journey it took me on. From the opening chapter, in which a young adult Denny tells his father on the telephone that he’s gay, I wasn’t quite sure where it was going to take me. It twists and turns, loops back on itself, and shows how one misunderstanding after another leads the Whitshanks to their current place in time.
It’s incredibly funny in places and heartbreaking in others. The characters are all vividly drawn and recognisable (every extended family, for instance, has a Denny in there somewhere, the type of person who creates endless problems and constant worry for his or her parents) and the dialogue, as ever, is pitch-perfect.
I’ve read pretty much every novel Anne Tyler’s ever written — I’ve reviewed Digging to America and The Amateur Marriage here, but the others were read in my late teens and twenties long before this blog — and this one is right up there with the best. For a short while it lets you enter and inhabit an entire and perfectly described world filled with interesting and intriguing characters.
If I was to fault it it would perhaps be its length — it’s slightly too long — and the change in key midway through the book. But in the grand scheme of things those are minor quibbles.
As you may recall from the competition I ran in late April, A Spool of Blue Thread has been shortlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. The winner will be announced on 3 June. I’d love to see Tyler win it, if only to round off her writing career with a well-earned high. In the meantime, if you’ve read the book, please do share your thoughts below — I’d love to know what you thought of it. Were you intrigued by the Whitshanks as much as me?
UPDATE — SATURDAY 6 JUNE
Congratulations to British writer Ali Smith whose novel How to be Both won this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier in the week. You can find out more via the official website.