#3wordreview: engaging, compassionate, insightful.
Anne Tyler's detailed and compassionate new novel tells the story of the 'unexceptional' Whitshank family as they navigate their way through the trials of everyday life.
It is a world of micro-interactions and realist fiction and the terrain feels safe - we are not set up for any shocks or unsettling plot twists. Instead we play witness to the daily routines of this mildly eccentric family coming to terms with their wayward son and their shared past.
The Whitshank home is at the heart of the story and setting. As the parents, Abby and Red, age and are unable to maintain the steady family structure, so too does the house begin to fall into disrepair. The grown up children are forced to return home to hold the house and its occupants together. Suddenly the family relationships are at their most intense and concentrated with very little breathing space for the family to exist harmoniously.
However, the family prides itself on getting on with life without drama, despite the emotional interruptions from their difficult son, Denny and some potentially damaging family secrets. They create a family myth for themselves to get by: 'Whitshanks don't die, was the family's general belief. Of course they never said this aloud. It would have seemed presumptuous.' When one family member does die however, they are forced to face their mortality and do so in a practical, matter-of-fact way.
Tyler's calm narrative bustles with subtle humour and insight. At one point we find out that Abby, the Matriarch, has taken in orphans for Sunday lunches, Thanksgivings and Christmas celebrations throughout her adult life. The reader too feels like one of her orphans - Tyler has pulled up a chair for the reader and invites us to dine with this open, welcoming and slightly troubled tribe.
The symbol of the house as the heart of the story is extremely detailed and visual. It is as if Tyler has sliced off the front layer of the building like a parent opening the front of a doll's house for an inquisitive child to look inside. We picture every member of the family, including the beloved family dog, going about their business. Although in separate rooms, they are all instinctively and intrinsically linked and affected by each others' subtle moods. They are essentially 'good' people - upstanding citizens who have paid their dues and are always willing to do right by the community despite their personal limitations in doing so.
Tyler's strengths here are on the detail and the mundane. She gently weaves a rich tapestry of family life with a generosity of spirit that never a spills into sentimentality.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler is shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, which is announced on 3rd June. http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/
Tagged in Hayley Atwell