Tolstoy was right, and had he still been around would probably, like me, love Anne Tyler‘s novels. It is only a historical accident that she has not been on this prize list before since it was only last year that American authors were included.
A Spool of Blue Thread is a fairly typical Anne Tyler offering. Set rather indeterminately in time, it starts in the late 1950s when Abby Whitshank catches the eye of Red and ultimately marries him. The narrative weaves back and forth through the history of that momentous event, the family that arises from it and the secrets and lies that have evolved around it over time. Sometimes it is merely faulty memory, occasionally romantic dreaming and always a little less than the full truth.
The locality is Baltimore County, somewhere in some town, but never the city – though the city may figure as part of the dreaming. The gathering of the clans is generally around the kitchen table, and the present gathering is there to consider how best to look after Abby and Red in their declining years, and what exactly to do with the big family house.
Anne Tyler takes us back through three generations of this family and the family house in a story that is linked by blue: the colour of paint, a dress, and piece of cloth and a thread – all of it significant at one moment or another. It is both funny at times and heart-wrenchingly sad. It will not disappoint.
This is not the same territory as that made familiar by the HBO The Wire Series. These tales, and this applies to nearly all Anne Tyler’s work, are solidly white American families, generally rural and which often start at big moments in life’s journey – weddings, funerals and family gatherings. I first read Breathing Lessons and haven’t stopped since. I read this Anne Tyler even before the Man Booker longlist came out.
The second book in this post, Lila, by Marianne Robinson is also an American novel, though Ms Robinson has twice been listed in the Man Booker International prize. Lila is part of a loosely connected series of three books. Gilead and Home being the first two. I don’t think it matters if you haven’t read the other two, having read them myself it is a little hard to tell. Like hearing someone at a party telling a story about people you know, the background details are already in place – does that make it funnier to you than to someone who knows nothing about the context?
The eponymous heroine of this novel starts life as an apparently unwanted child in a brothel, a young woman arrives and carries her away one day when she has been left neglected on the outside stoop. They spend a rackety few years together on the road, often in the company of another group, sometimes alone and always moving on. Doll has a disfiguring scar on her face which makes her easily remembered, and she has reasons not to wish that. They do spend one year in Tammany, Lila goes to school and gets lettered (or semi-literate) as a result, and can do simple sums – but once more the need to move on takes over and they hit the road again…
This single person narrative ranges over all this from a perspective of notional safety. But Lila never feels safe, her thoughts and feelings are edgy, questioning and sublimely intelligent in a native sort of way. Her guide book happens to be The Bible, picked up and conned for answers. Ezekiel is her starting point:
And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee; to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live.
The Book of Job also gave her pause for thought. How could something written aeons ago for people long dead, feel to her as though her very existence and her experiences were already known about and understood?
Her journey to the safe haven has been long and hard, so it is not surprising that towards the end of the book she turns and says:
I guess there’s something the matter with me, old man. I can’t love you as much as I love you. I can’t feel as happy as I am.
There is an interiority about this novel: its single narrator whose questioning mind registers so much that is beautiful about life and knows so much about its ugliness and sadness. Her landing in Gilead is accidental, we know nothing much of the town or its people from her, only what she sees. But everything she sees and touches takes her back across the journey she has made to get to where she is, and we are taken with her.
This is a most touching, gracious and tender novel. Sparely and exquisitely crafted. Were I minded to recommend other similar books I would suggest the novels of Barbara Kingsolver who has rather the same technique, and I would particularly also recommend another book by Marianne Robinson When I Was a Child I Read Books. This is why:
As a writer, I continuously attempt to make inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said – or said by me, at least. I seem to know by intuition a great deal that I cannot find words for. The frontiers of the unsayable have been opened for me by every book I have ever read that was in any degree ambitious, earnest or imaginative; by every good teacher I have had; by music and painting; by conversation that was in any way interesting, even conversation overheard as it passed between strangers.