Anne Tyler: great writer, but don’t invite her to dinner.
No-one nails domestic dysfunction like Anne Tyler. I love picking up one of her novels because I know exactly what I’m getting – relationships keenly observed with unsentimental honesty and with a luminous clarity that puts Tyler in a different league from her peers. ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ was my book group read over Christmas – is there a better time to read about family dysfunction? In this, her 20th novel, Tyler tells the story of multiple generations of the Whitshank family, in the kind of detail that makes you believe their existence unquestionably.
By leaping back in time throughout the novel, Tyler allows the reader to make assumptions about an older character, only to have that inner spark they still carry revealed when we read the story of their younger self. I found this most apparent with Abby, or ‘Mother Whitshank’ as the irritatingly earnest Nora insists on calling her with homespun passive-aggression. Both the characters and the relationships between them feel solid and complex and yet Tyler paints with a light hand. Much of what springs into vivid life has been sown only from subtle nuance and suggestion, and I think it is this ability to spin so much gold from so few words that is Tyler’s greatest strength.
Abby exasperates her children with her collecting and adopting of waifs and strays, and at first it is her son, Denny, the ‘black sheep’ of the family who struggles most visibly with her sometimes miss-placed kindness to others at what he sees as his expense. However, ironically, he is the one who resembles her most, both in taking on his partner’s daughter as his own, and in his protectiveness of his brother Stem, and yet he has no insight into their similarity.
Tyler’s lack of sentimentality is also a joy. She offers no solutions, no happy endings, and in ‘Spool’ we are left watching the slow irreversible journey towards decrepitude which we will all face at some point. It is a wonderful, if depressing novel and Tyler never sugarcoats the pill. While she is a genius at what she does, it must come at a terrible cost. I bet she never gets invited round to dinner anymore. Well, who would have her? She’d have the cracks of your cosy dysfunctional domesticity mapped and tracked before you could ask her to pass the salt.