Friday 17 November 2017

An Intricately Woven Family Portrait

The cover of Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread boasts a list of gushing quotes from a host of writers each with more literary clout than the last.

Tyler's 20th novel comes at a time when we expect soul-barring tweets and cover-shoots from our female novelists.

The Pulitzer award-winning Tyler, now 73, has maintained a Salinger-esque fortress of solitude since the publication of her first novel at 22. She has given few interviews and perhaps it is this reticence along with her addictive novels that has captured the devotion of generations of high-profile readers from Eudora Welty to John Updike to Jonathan Franzen.

Tyler's work is most often focused on characters trapped in, returning to or trying to escape their family home and the central setting in A Spool of Blue Thread is indeed the home of Baltimore family, the Whitshanks. Some authors deal in the Everyman, but in Tyler's case it is more the 'Everyfamily' that concerns her. The Whitshanks are us. The biographical details may differ but the family archetypes are all here; wayward son, well-meaning mother, disapproving sister - but Tyler's characters though archetypical at first glance are delicately drawn with a profound sensitivity to what complex and conflicted creatures we humans are.

Family secrets are unravelled and turned over at a languid pace in this four-part novel, exploring three generations over half a century. Tyler draws the minutiae of family life with microscopic attention to detail and elevates the mundane to the poetic. The scene where one character finds the titular spool of blue thread is masterful; in that simple occurrence all the strands of these generations of characters are momentarily drawn together and seem to exist in the same place and time. Tyler uses recurring motifs of home and family to illustrate how love can both unite us and trap us.

Tyler's pacing is unhurried and even dynamic events are related plainly and without overwrought fan fair, similar really to how the climactic events in our own lives occur; suddenly and often leaving us numb rather than eliciting hugely emotional responses. As Tyler knows, life's seismic events are often remarkable in their strange mundanity.

The novel opens with one such event when the Whitshanks' son calls to tell his parents that he is gay before disengaging from regular contact with them for the next 10 years. The topic is not returned to again in the story and we simply gather, as the years go by and Denny's character emerges, that this was more of a vignette rather than the main plot. And this could well serve as an analogy for the structure of the novel as a whole; a series of interludes that ultimately create a rich tapestry of family life - the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, an intricate portrait of this family and indeed of every family.

As much as A Spool of Blue Thread is a family saga, it is also a novel that deftly deals with the bigger issues; class, marriage, adoption, death and homosexuality, through the characters' interactions. How the Whitshanks perceive the world around them gives us great bursts of insight into the human condition. In one scene, family matriarch, the irrepressible Abby contemplates the bare neck of an orphaned child in her care. It is one of the most profoundly moving moments in the book as she ponders "who (now) would look at that little neck and just have to reach out and touch it... and marvel at how dear and impossibly perfect he is? That will never again happen to Douglas" .

Critics of Tyler have accused the Baltimore native of being somewhat safe in her writing. And yes, there is something cosy about a Tyler novel, a wholesomeness that shouldn't appeal and yet it does. The secret lies in Tyler's craft. The worlds she creates are so absorbing and believable; she taps into our innate curiosity about people just like ourselves.

A Spool of Blue Thread

Anne Tyler

Chatto & Windus €15.99

Sophie White

Sunday Independent

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