Shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction last year, ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler tells the story of three generations of the Whitshank family during the twentieth century. The novel focuses on Red and Abby Whitshank and their four grown up children: the black sheep of the family Denny, daughters Jeannie and Amanda and adopted son Stem. Meanwhile, the story of how Red’s parents Junior and Linnie Mae met and married in the 1930s forms another significant thread of the family saga.
I enjoyed reading Tyler’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel ‘Breathing Lessons’ a few years ago but hadn’t read any of her other books until now despite her career spanning twenty novels across six decades. She is famous for writing predominantly about the intricacies of family relationships and most of her novels are set in Baltimore, Maryland. Some have criticised Tyler for remaining too firmly in her comfort zone but I don’t have an issue with authors sticking to what they know, especially when the writing is as accomplished as Tyler’s is here.
As a domestic drama about a suburban white middle-class family, ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ was never going to be considered as groundbreaking as other books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, notably A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and the winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. However, whether describing significant life-changing events or the mundane routines in Red and Abby’s marriage, Tyler has the ability to write so much detail into her characters seemingly effortlessly and without sentimentality– a skill which shouldn’t be underestimated. She unpicks the minute details of various characters quietly and slowly, and is particularly astute where Red and Abby’s relationship with Denny is concerned.
Tyler writes that “There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks. None of them was famous. None of them could claim exceptional intelligence, and in looks they were no more than average… But like most families, they imagined they were special.” Ironically, it is the way Tyler describes the Whitshanks’ ordinariness which makes them so fascinating. Although I found Junior and Linnie Mae’s story less engaging than the parts about Red and Abby set in the present day, Tyler presents an effective portrait of family life across the generations with well-pitched elements of humour and tragedy woven into it.
Tyler has hinted in the past that ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ would be her final novel although her modern retelling of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ for the Hogarth Shakespeare project ‘Vinegar Girl’ will be published later this year. Even though it is unlikely that I will read all of Tyler’s work, I have a copy of ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’ which is widely considered to be her best novel and I am sure I will read this in the not too distant future.
Many thanks to Random House UK Vintage Publishing for sending me a review copy of ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ via NetGalley.