The Booker long-list has been published today, which means the start of my annual attempt to read the entire list before the eventually winner is crowned. Last year I managed 12 of the bakers dozen – leaving out only the actual winner. This year, I’m off to a good start having already read one of the books, and having been saving another nominee for period where I have a day to devote to it and it alone.
So Booker 2015, here we go, with my re-published review of Anne Tyler:
A Spool of Blue Thread
Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Chatto & Windus
Pub Date: Feb 10 2015
When announcing she was working on her twentieth novel A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler – who has spent a career avoiding interviews and self promotion – told the press that this was going to be the last book she planned to finish. For fans, such as myself, this was not news we wanted to hear. I became a fan in the early eighties when I read her ninth novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. This book immediately preceded what I believe was Tyler at her best in a flawless five novel period between 1985 and 1998 featuring: The Accidental Tourist (1985), Breathing Lessons (1988), Saint Maybe (1991), Ladder of Years (1995) and A Patchwork Planet (1998). This is not to say I haven’t liked or, indeed in some instances, loved her most recent five: Back When We Were Grownups (2001), The Amateur Marriage (2004), Digging to America (2006), Noah’s Compass (2010), and The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012), but those thirteen years between 1985 and 1998 delivered some of my favourite books of all time. I dare say they were also key reasons why both Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby nominated Tyler as ‘the greatest novelist writing in English’ around a decade ago.
Still, she is not everyone’s cup of tea. A common criticism of Tyler has always been that she writes gentle repetitive and formulaic novels about relationships, which has always seemed a bit lazy to me, akin to dismissing the works of Jane Austen on the same basis.
I think writing convincingly and warmly about relationships is actually quite hard to do. It is hard to take characters and just make the daily minutiae of life the main driver of your plot, but that is often the case with Tyler [Marilynne Robinson is probably the only other current writer I think does it as well]. Her writing may seem simple and economical but that simplicity in Tyler’s writing can, at first, delude you into thinking that she is not the literary master craftsman, she is. There is a deep warmth to her writing, and though her world (Baltimore) is packed with quirky, irksome, and often exasperating characters, there has always, for me, remained a believability to both her character’s dialogue and humanity.
As such, A Spool of Blue Thread, doesn’t really offer up anything new: it is a typical Tyler novel. In it we take a journey through three (or four depending on how exacting you wish to be) generations of the Whitshanks family. At the centre of the story is the family home built by Junior Whitshank. It is this house and its entry into, and exit from, Whitshank history that provides the bones upon which the story is fleshed out. It is here that Abby and Red bring up their four children – Denny and Stem and daughters Jenny and Amanda; it is here that Red’s parents Junior and Linnie Mae had laid their roots against the backdrop of a disagreement over a porch swing; and it is here that Abby and Red’s children return as Abby starts to show signs of dementia and Red gets progressively more deaf. It’s about love, death, obligation, the secrets we keep and the petty jealousies we harbour: about family essentially.
The book touches on themes that are common to many of Tyler’s books in particular that common tension between familial responsibility and independence, as reflected predominately in this book though the character of Denny. He’s the restless son, hoping from place to place and job to job to avoid merely following his father into the family business. He feels he should be the most important family member despite regularly casting his family aside and vanishing from their lives for periods of time. He is then jealous and unreasonable about the position of those who stayed. He’s a classic Tyler character.
People do sometime forget when talking about Tyler than is has always been a lightly comic writer, pouncing on absurdities and quirks. One of my favourite moments in the book is where she actually casts her net back to The Accidental Tourist and Macon Leary in one amusing passage discussing Amanda’s husband Hugh. A man never short of an idea on how to make it rich, Hugh owns a restaurant called Thanksgiving that just serves Turkey dinners, but his latest idea is to make travel easier for the reluctant planner/traveler. This made me smile.
It is by no means a flawless book. I finished it not sure the structure totally worked for me. I also felt slightly disappointed that Amanda and Jenny were less well drawn than Denny and Stem, and that the book’s initial sections gave the false impression that the book was going to be all about Denny. That said, these are minor quibbles and if A Spool of Blue Thread does indeed turn out to be the last book we see from Tyler, it is still a worthy exit piece, so saviour the final time you can tell people you’re reading the ‘new’ Anne Tyler. And, with no new novels to look forward to, I guess it will give us all a better excuse to re-read some of the old ones one more time and reconnect again with the likes of Ian Bedloe, Delia Grinstead, and Macon Leary. Here’s to that.