For decades Anne Tyler has been unearthing the family in stories that span 20 novels. A Spool Of Blue Thread is her latest release and my first encounter with the popular author.
New York Times writer Michiko Kakutani claims A Spool Of Blue Thread is “lacking in emotional specificity and psychological ballast.” But how can a novel shortlisted for the Manbooker Prize and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015 not have an emotional punch?
Another NYT writer, Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, argues that “Tyler has a knack for turning sitcom situations into something far deeper and more moving.” She discusses how the house Junior was employed to build became the emotional centre of the family for the following century. This “perfect family” dates back to Junior’s love affair with a thirteen year old seductress – and so it goes without saying that the psychological and emotional punches are there. While the critics may be divided, I most certainly am not.
A Spool Of Blue Thread flicks back and forth through the twentieth century in a manner that forces you to pay attention. Despite showcasing three generations of the Whitshanks there’s not a family tree on the inside cover for readers to turn to. No, instead you must pay attention and distinguish a vast array of relationships – both blood and emotional.
At the beginning of the novel Tyler writes of the Whitshanks, “Like most families, they imagined they were special.” From there, the characters unravel myths that have passed down through generations. While the first 200 pages tell the story from Abby and Red as grandparents and conclude at a point which would have made a satisfying short novel, I’m glad Tyler continues with flashbacks to their childhood, stretching to their previous relationships. The four parts to the novel act as a series of novellas and the chapters within these a selection of short stories, allowing readers to zoom in on individual characters, a treat for a novel with so many names.
Tyler writes dreamily about the Whitshanks and their idyllic home in Baltimore. The iconic line, “It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon” sets the tone for the novel and immerses readers in a colourful, vibrant and realistic world. This ability to create a sense of genuineness is Tyler’s spark, pushing the quality of her writing above and beyond her contemporaries. When the characters speak you can hear their voices; from Denny’s fierce attitude to Linnie’s southern drawl, fixing them in a parallel world rather than a fictional one.
Tyler’s new readers will meet A Spool Of Blue Thread and soon be reaching for her previous 19 novels.
Jessikah Hope Stenson