Anne Tyler, Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ by Anne Tyler

Fiction – paperback; Chatto & Windus; 178 pages; 2020.

Anne Tyler’s latest novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, is classic Anne Tyler: absorbing, perceptive and warm-hearted, but underpinned by a current of pathos.

It tells the story of Micah Mortimer, a 41-year-old man, who does his best to live a quiet, understated life in which he never puts a foot wrong.

He has a “woman friend”, Cass, who teaches fourth grade, but they live in separate apartments and lead fairly separate lives, only catching up on a semi-regular basis for meals, overnight stays and weekend outings.

Day-to-day, he follows a relatively regimented schedule — going for a run at 7.15am every morning, for instance, and cleaning his basement flat according to a rigid routine.

He makes his living as a computer technician, running his own business called TECH HERMIT, where he makes home visits to sort people’s computer and printer issues out. He also moonlights as the super at the apartment building in which he lives.

He is cordial and friendly to people, but he’s not social and has no male friends. But this is his life and he has no cause to examine it.

Of course, this wouldn’t be an Anne Tyler novel without something extraordinary happening to an ordinary person, throwing things into disarray and causing characters to reassess their situations. In Micah’s case, two things happen: an 18-year-old preppy-looking kid turns up on his doorstep claiming Micah is his father, and his girlfriend Cass breaks off their relationship because he does little to help her when she fears she might become homeless. Both events test Micah’s view of himself — and his life.

Character-driven novel

As a character-driven novel, this is a perceptive look at a seemingly happy middle-aged man whose life is thrown off kilter.  For all his stability and level-headedness, you only have to scratch the surface to realise that Micah is not a particularly confident person. He might not be able to control how other people behave, so he has spent his life focusing on the things he can control — making sure his house is spotlessly clean, doing a job that doesn’t challenge him too much, keeping Cass at arm’s length because if he makes a real commitment he could potentially get hurt.

Micah, however, doesn’t have enough self-awareness to realise that this is what he does. He’s puzzled when he turns up to a family gathering — he is the youngest of four children — and finds his sisters and in-laws taking the mickey out of him. When he announces that he and Cassie have broken up, they urge him to try to get her back.

“Tell her you’ll change your ways,” Phil advised him.
“Change what ways?” Micah asked.
This made them all start laughing; he didn’t know why. […]
“Uncle Mickey’s kind of … finicky.”
“I am not finicky,” Micah said.
“What day is it today, Micah?” Suze’s husband called from the foyer doorway. […]
“What do you mean, what day? It’s Thursday.”
“Is it vacuuming day? Is it dusting day? Is it scrub-the-keyboards-with-a-Q-tip day?”
“Oh, Dave, leave him alone,” Suze said.
“He doesn’t mind! Is it window-washing day?”
“Well,” Micah said grudgingly. “It’s kitchen day, as it happens.”
“Kitchen day! Ha! Your kitchen has a day all its own?”
“Yes.”
“And what does that involve, exactly?” […]
“On kitchen day I clean the counters and the appliances and such. And one complete cabinet.”
“One cabinet?”
“In rotation.”
They laughed again, and Micah gave an exaggerated scowl. He wasn’t sure why he played along with them like this. (Even encouraged them, some might say.)

This is a novel about missteps and misperceptions to the point of almost farce. Even the novel’s title, which comes from short-sighted Micah mistaking a fire hydrant as a “redhead by the side of the road”, suggests a farcical element to his life.

There are a lot of misunderstandings too, owing largely to lack of communication, or people jumping to conclusions. For instance, Cass thinks that Micah deliberately has someone stay over in his guest room so that he won’t have to invite her to move in when she’s evicted. But it never even occurs to him that he should ease her fears of homelessness by offering her to move in with him.

By the same token, Cass lacks the directness to say what she feels, which would help resolve the issue.

Comic and heartfelt

Redhead by the Side of the Road is a very humane book, brimming with comic moments and heartfelt deeds. It’s cosy without being cloying, moving without being sentimental, and life-affirming without being moralistic.

I adored it, and for all of Micah’s annoying habits and lack of spontaneity, I loved spending time in his company. It only makes me want to work my way through Anne Tyler’s backlist — most of which I’ve already read pre-blog.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Joy Rhoades, Publisher, Setting

‘The Woolgrower’s Companion’ by Joy Rhoades

The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhodes

Fiction –  hardcover; Chatto & Windus; 416 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Joy Rhodes’ The Woolgrower’s Companion is a sweeping saga set in the Australian outback during the Second World War. The story is best described as one woman’s struggle to save the family farm against the odds. Admittedly, this is not my normal cup of tea, but this is the kind of romantic story you can lose yourself in, especially if you’re looking for something easy and enjoyable to read on holiday.

Life on a farm

It’s the 1940s and Kate Dowd co-owns a large sheep station with her father, a returned soldier from the First World War. Her mother died a couple of years ago, so Kate runs the household  (cooking, cleaning, gardening), managing Daisy, the young Aboriginal maid, and helping Harry, the 10 year old nephew of Mr Grimes, the farm manager.

She’s married, but her husband Jack is in the Army and is stuck in Sydney training soldiers. They never see each other.

When her father begins behaving oddly — losing his memory, not wanting to get out of bed, losing his temper — it’s up to Kate to keep things together: to make sure the men who live and work on the farm are paid, including two Italian prisoners of war (POW) who have been employed for their horsemanship; that routine maintenance is being carried out; that the sheep are being looked after properly; and that things keep ticking over despite the fact the region is plagued by drought and water is in short supply.

This new level of involvement in the management of the farm makes Kate realise there’s something not quite right: her father owes a massive amount of money to the bank and if the bills aren’t paid soon there’s a chance the property and all the livestock will be repossessed.

Multiple plot lines

Most of the plot revolves around Kate’s attempts to fend off the bank. But there are subsidiary plots revolving around the POWs (will she or won’t she become romantically involved with Luca, who helps in the garden, for instance), an ongoing hunt for a yellow sapphire that Kate’s father bought then hid in a place so secret he can no longer remember where he put it, and a dilemma over what to do when the help falls pregnant.

The book explores the strict social codes of the time as well as the racism, which makes it socially unacceptable for Kate to not only work on the farm but to form a friendship with a young aboriginal person. It examines the legacy of the First World War on those who fought on the battlefields of Europe and tells the little known story of how Italian POWs were shipped from British POW camps in India and sent to work on Australian farms (to replace those farmers who were fighting abroad).  And it’s a fascinating portrait of life on the land in the harsh Australian outback.

It’s an evocative tale from another era, written in simple, often lyrical prose, where the landscape is as much a part of the story as the well drawn characters that inhabit it. This subtle and perceptive story largely draws on the experiences of the author’s paternal grandmother, a fifth generation sheep farmer from northern NSW, which lends it a ring of authenticity.

For me The Woolgrower’s Companion sometimes felt a bit slow going and the storyline slightly cliched, but it’s a good historical novel and will appeal to a broad audience.

Earlier this week Joy Rhoades took part in Triple Choice Tuesday. To see which three books she recommends, please visit this post.

This is my seventh book for #AWW2017.

Anne Tyler, Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

A-Spool-of-Blue-Thread

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?’
‘A dress!’
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.

Author, Book review, Canada, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Mary Lawson, Publisher, Setting

‘Road Ends’ by Mary Lawson

Road-Ends

Fiction – hardcover; Chatto & Windus; 320 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mary Lawson’s Road Ends, which was longlisted for this year’s Folio Prize, is set in the fictional Canadian town of Struan, in Northern Ontario. It forms part of a loose trilogy comprising Crow Lake (2002) and The Other Side of the Bridge (2006), neither of which I’d read.

The book charts the slow disintegration of a large, dysfunctional family when the eldest daughter decides to leave home to pursue her dream of living abroad. I read it back-to-back with Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and couldn’t help but notice similarities in the way it looks at the impact on family dynamics and psychology following a major (unwelcome) change.

But unlike Ng’s best-selling novel, Road Ends has a rather old-fashioned feel to it — it’s set in the 1960s but you could easily mistake it for a much earlier time period. Part of that is due to the prose style and “voice” of the characters, but perhaps also because of its small town setting where the modern world has yet to make an impact.

Three storylines

Road Ends is comprised of three story strands narrated by three different characters each with a strong and distinctive voice:  Twenty-one-year-old Megan Cartwright, who moves to London in the Swinging Sixties; her brother, Tom, who cuts short a promising academic career to grieve for the loss of his best friend through suicide; and her father, Edward, an emotionally distant man, who is a poor parent but a fine, upstanding citizen in a position of power (he’s the local bank manager).

From the outset it is clear that this is a family that is out-of-control. The house is full of children — all boys — whom shout and fight and break things. Megan spends her life looking after them and maintaining some kind of order, but she dreams of bigger things and wants to escape the drudgery of domestic servitude and to see something of the world. When she announces that she’s going to London, no one believes her — until she packs her suitcase and goes.

Her early exploits in London cover the whole gamut of ups and downs, but when she finally finds her dream job running a small boutique hotel she comes into her own. She falls in with a nice group of people and finds fulfillment in her job (if not her love life)

Meanwhile, the family left behind goes to rack and ruin. The mother is distant, and too wrapped up in her babies, to really care about anything other than the newest addition:

It came to Tom suddenly that his mother didn’t actually care for her children very much once they passed the baby stage. It was just babies she liked. Maybe that was why she kept having more.

The father feels trapped, but instead of dealing with the situation he locks himself away in his study and lets things unfold of their own accord, even if that means there is no food for the children to eat or clean clothes for them to wear:

Just for the record, I did not want any of this. A home and a family, a job in a bank. It was the very last thing I wanted. I am not blaming Emily. I did blame her for a long time but I see now that she lost as much as I did. She proposed to me rather than the other way around, but she is not to blame for the fact that I said yes. That phrase they use in a court of law—“The balance of his mind was disturbed”—sums it up very well. I married Emily while the balance of my mind was disturbed.

It is Tom — shy, awkward and lonely — who must confront the realities of the family’s problems, particularly when he notices that young Adam, the youngest brother, has a peculiar odour, because he hasn’t had a bath in weeks, and is thin and hungry, because no one has bothered to feed him. In today’s world, this would constitute child abuse.

A gentle read

Despite this tale sounding rather horrid — all that neglect! all those people who don’t take responsibility! all that sexism! — I found it quite a gentle, almost soothing read. It probably helps that none of the characters are deliberately bad or cruel, though they do  behave in inexplicable ways without taking personal responsibility for anything and I was occasionally angered by Edward’s pomposity and lack of backbone.  Even Tom, who realises that things cannot go on in such a dire way, made me mad, because instead of sorting things out himself he decides to drag Megan back into the very mess she tried to escape.

But as much as this is a book about marriage, parenthood and family — think the kinds of novels Anne Tyler might write if she joined forces with Anita Shreve — it’s also about being an émigré, for Megan’s story is very much about what it is like to be caught between two countries — and two lives. At times it reminded me of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, though Megan’s story is a little too “polished” — things go her way too easily — and everything is tied up too neatly at the end.

Yet Road Ends is a rather heartwarming — and heartbreaking — novel. Occasionally it is frustrating and anger-inducing, sometimes it is surprising, but mostly it’s compelling and such a lovely, subtle read, that I didn’t really want the story to end; I had such a great time in the company of these well-drawn, all too-human characters…