The publication of a writer’s twentieth novel is, surely, a monumental occasion. Especially if the novel, which the writer has hinted might be her last, is met with broad critical acclaim and shortlisted for two of the biggest literary awards in the UK. And especially if the novel is described as a ‘multigenerational epic,’ a ‘family saga’—terms which align it with the great tomes of recent American fiction, the epics of Eugenides, Smiley, and Franzen. Yet Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread does not announce itself as such, and it certainly does not tower over its readers as a masterwork, the grand climax to a literary career.
Instead, the novel’s opening pages draw its readers into the decidedly ordinary world of the Whitshanks, a middle-class Baltimore family whose muddled lives and history provide Tyler with her plot. It’s 1994, and Abby and Red Whitshank receive a phone call from their estranged son Denny, who announces that he is gay. After he abruptly hangs up, the aging couple are thrown into tizzy—not so much about their son’s revelation, which they infer might be false, as about the fact that they don’t have a caller ID function on their phone. This opening incident sets the tone for the novel, which refuses to sentimentalise any of its major events—death, marriage, divorce, statutory rape—preferring instead to focus on the prosaic, practical, and frequently comic details that surround them. Slowly, out of these details emerges a larger portrait of three generations of Whitshanks, built up as the novel moves in sections from the narrative present of 2012, to the 1960s, then the 1930s, and back to the present again.
Since Tyler shuns any overarching narrative perspective in favour of oratio obliqua, her readers must cling, like the Whitshanks, to these small, circumstantial details for their growing understanding of the characters’ lives. And it is this technique that lends the novel its quality of intimacy, the kind of George Eliot-style sympathy that has attracted Tyler critical praise and disdain in almost equal measure. A neat example of this comes early in the novel, when the narrative adopts Abby’s voice—her perspective, lexis, and tone—to register her not-so-subtle indignation at the presence of a sexagenarian housekeeper in her home:
Two weeks into the job, Mrs Girt forcibly removed a skillet from Abby’s hands and insisted on making her an omelette, during which time the iron she had abandoned set fire to a dish towel in the sunroom. No serious harm was done except to the dish towel, which was plain terry cloth from Target and hadn’t needed ironing in the first place, but that was the end of Mrs Girt.
The passage is, undoubtedly, guilty of paying a little too much attention to the particulars of domestic life—the provenance of a dish towel hardly makes for thrilling reading—but it is not straightforwardly ‘cosy.’ Tyler doesn’t just invite her readers to cluck affectionately at Abby’s fussing, to nod in recognition at the difficulties of having a housekeeper. As well as being funny, there is something troubling about the hyperbolic terms with which Abby apprehends Mrs Girt’s inept housekeeping—‘forcibly’ wresting a utensil from Abby, ‘abandoning’ an iron. In fact, the passages which follow will show this language to quietly indicate the matriarch’s guilty implication in a far more significant emotional conflict, one which involves her son, Stem. Yes, Abby is offered to us as endearingly eccentric, a kindly old mother and grandmother, but she is also implicated in a less savoury narrative of theft, possession, and abandonment—and she knows it.
To say that Tyler’s novel is readily accessible, marked by stylistic economy and an emphasis on the quotidian is not, then, to say that it is simple, homey, or sentimental. Rather, homey details provide Tyler with a platform to engage with questions that reach far beyond the domain of the domestic, and nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the spool that gives the book its title. In addition to its literal presence in the plot—appearing at just the right moment to cue redemption and repair—the spool is the novel’s central structural metaphor, aiding its meditations on what it is, exactly, to tell a story. The circular, unwinding movement of the spool undergirds the wandering, episodic development of the narrative, as the family history is revisited and retold from different perspectives—a connection made clear by Tyler’s description of the Whitshanks’ own storytelling habits. Again and again they return to two stories that have been passed ‘down the generations,’ ‘told and retold and embroidered and conjectured upon any number of times.’ As the skein of the Whitshanks’ stories unravel, we find ourselves forced to consider just how precarious, just how artificial are the narratives that we create as we seek to impose meaningful structure onto our experience.
Although the shifts between sections can, at times, feel less like slow unravelling and more like the jolting of heavy novelistic machinery (hardly helped by a glaring spelling mistake in the first line of Part Three), Tyler’s narration is almost seamless. Her prose is richly patterned, her characters sharply drawn, her plot refreshingly off-kilter. By the end of the book, I found myself agreeing with the critics whose superlatives grace its opening pages. Tyler’s twentieth novel is unassumingly exquisite.