Magazine article The Spectator

'A Spool of Blue Thread', by Anne Tyler - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'A Spool of Blue Thread', by Anne Tyler - Review

Article excerpt

A Spool of Blue Thread Anne Tyler

Chatto, pp.368, £18.99, ISBN: 9780701189518

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....Their family firm was well thought of. But then, so were many others. But like most families, they imagined they were special.

So, you know what you will get in this novel, which Anne Tyler says will be her last, and that is the stories of three generations of the Whitshanks, a straightforward, unexceptional Baltimore family. We have been here before. Tyler takes the minute details of everyday life -- food, furniture, work, outings -- and makes them remarkable, makes them stand for much larger things -- relationships, marriages, disappointments, sickness, struggles, death -- because great things take place, as W.H. Auden knew, while we are 'just walking dully along'.

And yes, this is a dull family, exactly as Tyler has almost defiantly set out above. Don't think you are going to read about heroes and extraordinary adventures, about murder, incest and revenge. These are not Greek tragedies. This is life as most people live it, day in, day out, until the end. And yet it is life that matters passionately to them, partly because it is all they know, partly because they sense that every grain of dust, every movement, every breath, has ultimate value. 'Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?'

When Red Whitshank married Abby, the local girl he had known since she was 12, he stayed in the place where he was born, 'in the house he grew up in, where he planned to die one day. Not much of a story in that.' True. Yet we read on about their children, sons- and daughters-in-law, grandchildren, neighbours, friends, as if our own lives depended on it. The Whitshanks are both unutterably boring and the very stuff of life.

Their son Denny is the 'interesting' one, something of a misfit, never settling, intensely private. He vanishes for months, even years, on end, never communicating in any way, and then telephones his parents to say that he is gay. Or about to be married -- would they come to the wedding? And then he appears with his baby daughter, thoroughly competent at looking after her, never properly explaining where her mother is, or why. Stays for a while. Leaves again. What is his job? No one knows, but they assume he is some sort of itinerant labourer. Then he turns up with a college degree. Many families have this kind of son or daughter, the unpredictable, infuriating, baffling one. Denny is perhaps a little autistic. …

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