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A Spool of Blue Thread

Clare F. Hobba

Vintage, 465pp
Anne Tyler

This is Anne Tyler's twentieth novel and it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. It is a tour de force concerning four generations of the Whitshank family.

It starts with one of the stories that the family tells about itself concerning the house which the patriarch, Junior, builds for a more affluent family, the Brills. But junior falls in love with the house and must have it. He stays on the scene even after the Brills have moved in, returning to maintain it for them. One day, he obtains the opportunity to buy it from them, by means of a trick.

Junior, although from an unprivileged background, has unerring taste and has made sure that the house is just as he wants it. However, along with the perfect house, he gains a prosperous middle class neighbourhood. He embraces the new standards which he feels are expected of his family, often starting his admonitions 'In this house, we do not…'. 'So "this house" really meant "this family" it seemed. The two were one and the same.'

However, he never does fit in that neighbourhood. He is treated politely, but not with open arms. His lack of contentment is shown by the fact that he continues to tinker with the house for the rest of his life. His son Red has grown up in the neighbourhood so his family gets along better. But as he and his wife, Abby, grow older, she complains that the house is never the right size, too large when it is just the two of them, too small when their grandchildren visit.

Finally their oldest son, Denny, is not ready to take up the burden or trophy of their solid family home and just as the novel starts with the story of how the family came by the house, it ends with how they came to leave it. Yet, although Tyler describes certain attractive features of the house, like the long porch and the 'double pocket doors' she does not endow it with a personality. We do not feel that the house 'is' the family - that remains firmly the perspective of Junior, the family's founding father.

Instead, in parallel, Tyler adds other tales of how the members of the couples through the generations found each other, not without difficulty and complication. Especially the story of Junior and his wife sounds as if their marriage very nearly did not come to pass. The fact that these stories are now history and regarded by those concerned as inevitable gives us confidence in the future of the flighty Denny who, by the end of the book, has made a significant choice. This is the lesson, that we look back and realise that commitments which may, at the time, have seemed tenuous, can be the foundation of a solid family. Unlike her character, Junior, Tyler does not mistake a family home for a family.

The book is well-salted with dry humour. The jokes are under written, allowing space for the reader to sense the misunderstanding or picture the scene and give a chuckle. A particularly well-executed example is the funeral at the centre of the novel. Here, as so often in life, a young minister has to muster a funeral sermon for a person he has never met. It becomes clear to the reader that he has developed a technique to re-use the material which friends and relatives have just delivered in their little homilies. On hearing the minister announce that the dead all go to 'a vast consciousness', the elderly widower remarks to his daughter:

'Well, that does sound like something your mother might do…But I don't know; I was hoping for someplace more concrete.'

There have been complaints that Tyler is too heart-warming to be a literary giant, but the appearance of a heart-warming family saga is only superficial. Scratch the surface of Tyler's deceptively simple and fluent writing and complexity lies underneath. Some of her characters are far from sympathetic. However, the thing that distinguishes her work is not that her characters are all 'lovely' but that she chooses to deal even with the cold and the snobbish people with a mature affection. Her chosen weapon is never mordant vitriol but rather gentle mockery. She conveys their flaws, but never loses sight of the bigger picture - they have strengths too. I do not see from Anne Tyler's writing a strong Christian theme, but her loving and inclusive attitude to the people in her books is a good model for Christians to follow.

Nor are the well-intentioned characters without their rough edges and infuriating habits. Even the charismatic Abby is shown to irritate and offend her children at times. Nobody is shown as all-wise or all good. Especially, the family house which could be employed as a clichéd symbol of stability and togetherness is not depicted as holding the spirit of the family. The family is a more diffuse thing than that, held together patchily by a multiplicity of bonds which are strong in some places, weak in others. By the end of the novel, we are convinced that the family is strong enough to gather itself up and continue for another generation.

If romantic love is a theme that is commonplace in literature, ageing is not. In viewing the developing plight of Red and Abby, we see them partly as they see themselves, a young and lively couple, but also partly as their offspring see them - a growing concern, with disabilities gathering to make independent living challenging. This subject of ageing is surely a live topic for current Western society and in reading Tyler, we will learn more, both about ourselves and our own ageing process, but also how we might have more sympathy for others.