13 February 2016

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

You just can't tell with Anne Tyler. In 2012, at the time of the publication of her last novel The Beginner's Goodbye, Tyler said that she hoped that her next novel would take a long time. A Spool of Blue Thread not only hasn't taken a long time in Tyler terms – the usual length of time is three years – but her latest contains 465 pages: about 200 more than her normal offerings. And far from representing a lessening in quality, I consider this to be one of her best.

This is a family saga which weaves about in time, very removed from linearity, and the spool of thread in the title can be taken as both literal and figurative, knitting the disparate parts into the reader's consciousness. Abby Whitshank (Red's wife) is one of the main characters and before she dies in a car collision at about the age of 72 her family believe she's beginning to lose her mind, although glimpses into it suggest that this is far from the case. Especially relevant here is Abby insisting on calling the dog Clarence, whereas Clarence has been dead some time and been replaced by Brenda: I prefer to see this as a literary device, a manifestation of the thread joining different generations – and also as a generic term for the family dog – as opposed to a sign of impending dementia.

As a lover of Anne Tyler's fiction who has read almost all of her novels, I feel compelled to return to my long-established habit of refuting those critics who seem to think that Tyler is a comfortable, light read, a writer of cozy fiction. For instance, an article in The Chicago Tribune 20 June 1986 is written by John Blades and entitled 'For Nutrasweet Fiction, Tyler Takes the Cake', and Blades calls Celestial Navigation (still my favorite Tyler novel) a 'soft-focus and sentimentalized portrait of an outcast artist': Blades can't possibly have read the book because for much of the time it reads like a bad acid trip!

Interestingly and surely tellingly, as Tyler must have been writing with a knowing wink to Blades's remarkably off-target review – she even mentions Nutrasweet in this latest novel. Which represents a very far from comfortable world. Although Denny only appears 'behind the scenes' when making a telephone call to his parents Abby and Red in 1994, when he was 19 and appears to have been uncertain of his sexual identity, he serves as a framing device for the novel, which ends with him swiftly taking the Amtrak back to his 'home' in New Jersey. It is Denny who mends Red's bright blue dashiki (which itself links two important occasions at very different times) and who finds the original blue thread; and it is also Denny who helps out at his parents' ancestral home when they're in difficulty. But ironically, Denny has also been a very problematic character, a drifter, a worry to his parents, a person who can never settle anywhere or with anyone, who bears some resentment toward Stem, who's not his real brother, but (in spite of having a negligent and usually absent mother) was one of the 'orphans' the social worker Abby took pity on.

Red's parents Junior and Linnie had a far from idyllic marriage, Red and Abby seem to be falling apart due to old age, many people in this novel just don't get on with each other, it can hardly be described as a cozy book with a happy ending, although it is often very, very funny.

This is a remarkable book about families, ageing, compromise, resilience, eccentricity, love, and much more. The modern world makes a bigger appearance than usual in Tyler's novels also, wi-fi and email are mentioned, and, oh, the language is slightly more adventurous. I feel sure that the mischievous Tyler – who usually keeps her speech within the limits of very polite language, her characters frequently uttering such quaint euphemisms as 'jeez!' and 'scheesh!' – deliberately called her main characters in Spool 'Whitshank' just so she could have a walk-on schoolmate call her offspring 'Shitwank'. So much for Nutrasweet.

My other Anne Tyler reviews are below:

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Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)
Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)
Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)

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