Man Booker Challenge 2015: A Spool of Blue Thread

A Spool of Blue Thread book coverA Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler

‘It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon…’ This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she and Red fell in love that day in July 1959. The whole family on the porch, relaxed, half-listening as their mother tells the same tale they have heard so many times before. And yet this gathering is different. Abby and Red are getting older, and decisions must be made about how best to look after them and their beloved family home. They’ve all come, even Denny, who can usually be relied on only to please himself.

From that porch we spool back through three generations of the Whitshanks, witnessing the events, secrets and unguarded moments that have come to define who and what they are. And while all families like to believe they are special, round that kitchen table over all those years we see played out the hopes and fears, the rivalries and tensions of families everywhere – the essential nature of family life.

This is a rather lovely book. A deceptively straightforward story, it opens with the family deliberating over how to care for the ageing Abby and Red: Red who refuses to stop working despite his heart attacks; and Abby who is beginning to experience “blank patches” where she cannot remember where she was or what she was doing. As their four children and their spouses gather to try to provide support, their interactions reveal the family’s history, secrets and unspoken truths.

This first, longest section is followed by three shorter sections. The first goes back in time to the day Abby fell in love with Red, having previously been involved with one of his friends. The chapter takes place over a single day, which Abby spends at Red’s family’s house as Red and his friends are chopping down a tree in preparation for Red’s sister’s wedding. Although it’s told as the story of how Abby fell in love with Red, she doesn’t actually spend much time with him: for most of the chapter, she is talking and cooking with Red’s mother, Linnie Mae, who unexpectedly confides a secret to Abby about a long-buried scandal surrounding how she and Red’s father, Junior, first got together.

The next chapter then goes back in time further, to delve into the history of Junior and Linnie Mae’s relationship. Both their marriage and Linnie Mae’s character are revealed through this story as more complex than anyone had imagined. Linnie Mae in particular, having been described throughout the book so far as a gentle, softly-spoken, typical housewife, is revealed as being more daring, calculating and strong-willed than even her husband realises.

The final chapter returns to the present day, and wraps up the loose ends surrounding the future of the ageing Whitshanks and the house that has been their constant home for three generations.

I found this book a little difficult to get into to begin with. As I had predicted, it suffered from being read straight after the bold and challenging A Little Life: while Yanagihara’s book punches you in the gut, A Spool of Blue Thread is much subtler, gradually painting a picture of family life. However once I got into it, I really enjoyed it.

Tyler’s writing is superb: elegant, and never a word wasted. She also has a gift for observing character. Even the most minor characters in the book are well-drawn. I particularly loved Merrick, Red’s waspish sister, who we first meet as the blunt, no-nonsense foil to Abby’s tendency to be a bleeding-heart; later, we learn about the teenage Merrick’s calculated (and successful) plot to steal her best friend’s wealthy fiance.

There isn’t so much a narrative as a series of observations and anecdotes drawn together to create a family portrait. We learn about former social worker Abby’s frequent “adopting” (once literally) of lost souls, to her children’s frustration; her troubled son Denny’s feelings of abandonment despite being, to his siblings’ minds, Abby’s main focus over the years; Junior’s feelings of inadequacy and his attempts to build a position for himself in the world by building the perfect house; and many other large and small stories through the generations.

I was occasionally slightly frustrated by some story strands that didn’t seem to go anywhere: we see two characters whose marriage is clearly falling apart; one character learns a shocking truth about their biological parentage; and we are told that one of Abby’s children’s spouses belongs to a fundamental church; but none of these strands are developed any further.

I think the aim of this book was to provide a slice-of-life, a family portrait, rather than a coherent story, and on this level it certainly succeeds. I would have liked to have seen fewer stories introduced and more brought to a conclusion, but that’s not really the style of this book so perhaps that’s not a fair criticism.

As an exploration of family ties, with all the love and resentment, bitterness and joy that go along with being a family, A Spool of Blue Thread is excellent. It’s not exactly my taste, and I’m not sure it’s really strong enough to be a Booker winner, but I’m glad I read it and would probably pick up more of Anne Tyler’s books in future.


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