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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 9 February 2017

"A spool of blue thread" by Anne Tyler

This book starts with a great hook: Red and Abby get a phone call from their son nineteen-year-old Denny who is travelling they don't know where to tell them he is gay (and then immediately to disconnect the call). There follows a brilliant dialogue between to two parents in which the wife blames the father for the way he handled the call, his failure to install caller id (and by the time they get round to last number redial someone else has already called), the way his manner drove Denny away etc. The wonderful start than moves to wonder about what is wrong with Denny, the child who never seemed to belong in the family, who got his girlfriend pregnant before his parents realised he had a girlfriend, who couldn't finish college or hold down a job, who drifted away and never told them where he was, who always seemed to harbour grudges and resentments. From there we find out about the family and it begins to drift through the generations.

So we learn about the kids and the grandkids and the parents and the grandparents. Each of them has their own particular story. I suppose a lot of it is about how life doesn't quite deliver what you thought it might.It is about strong-minded women make the running and how men are always trying to boss them about but in the end they always fall into line. In fact the women really do rule the roost, in little things and in big things. I was particularly struck how one matriarch fulfilled her childhood dream of having four children even if she had to resort to secret underhand tactics. And how another seduced her man when she was thirteen and he twenty six and then pursued him and captured him five years later. In many ways the men, so proud of their handiwork and so determined to be boss, were puppets in the hands of women who knew exactly what they wanted.

But there is no obvious plot, it just wanders around behind the interesting personalities without ever really going anywhere. I got excited when a very significant death occurs bang in the centre of the book (47.7% of the way through) so that I thought I had finally arrived at some sort of structure but then it meandered backwards and forwards through the generations and the predictions I was making about revelations to come never came true.

But there is some wonderful writing. There are two brilliant set pieces, one that discussion right at the start and the second a brilliant discussion in the aftermath of a family death. And the characterisations are fantastic.  In many ways it is a perfect reflection of life and, like life too, there are many threads left hanging.

  • "Trey thinks she hung the moon." (p 68)
  • "When she walked her hem fluttered around her calves in a liquid, slow-motion way that made every man stop dead in his tracks and stare." (p 97)
  • "Independent? Bosh. That's just another word for selfish." (p 172)
  • "It's stiff-backed people like you who end up being the biggest burdens." (p 173)
  • "We're young for such a small fraction of our lives, and yet our youth seems to stretch on forever. Then we're old for years and years, but time flies by fastest then. So it all comes out equal in the end." (p 211)
  • "Didn't anyone stop to reflect that the so-called old people of today used to smoke pot" (p 217)
  • "People never seem to bring liquor when somebody dies, have you noticed? Why not a case of beer? Or a bottle of really good wine? Just these everlasting casseroles." (p 227)
  • "She had assumed, till now, that her ultimate goal in life was a husband and four children and a comfortable house" (p 297)
  • "It wasn't only the disadvantaged that needed compassion." (p 298)
  • "He could shoot a splinter of sadness straight through her." (p 298)
  • "Most people who seem scary are just sad." (p 308)
  • "I might could tell you where you would find him." (p 387)
  • "Lord it over him, would she! She must really think she had his number!" (p 418)
  • "He didn't quite make the grade. And it was assumed to be his own fault, because he lived in a nation where theoretically, he could make the grade." (p 425)

Wonderful characters. What is particularly nice is their inconsistencies. It adds to their complexities.

Here are the answers to some of the questions asked at my reading group. Some spoliers here!
1. We don't learn the full significance of the title until page 350. How did this delay make the metaphor more powerful?
A spool of blue thread spills out of the sewing basket as Denny is mending Red's funeral clothes after Abby's death. Denny thinks this means that the spirit of his mum is trying to communicate with him. So is this thread a metaphor for the family line? But a key point is that the family line isn't a bloodline; to Abby who has 'bouhgt' the child, Stem is 'as much' her son as Denny is (although Denny clearly resents this fact and doesn't see Stem as having the entitlement of fully belonging to the family). So, as with much of this novel, the question is asked by the answer is mumbled.

2. How does Tyler use shifts in time to reveal character and change the reader's perception?
This must be to do with the way the book is pivoted around Abby's death which a chronological book couldn't. It is interesting that the document showing Abby's illegal and unprincipled 'purchase' of Stem comes so early in the book.

5. The family home as a character.
In many ways the family home is the principle character. Red's father schemed and possibly cheated to acquire the house he had built; to him it represented prosperity and security. But after Abby's death Red is content to leave it.

6. The novel opens and closes with Denny. Is he the main character?
I thought Abby was the main character. She is the centre pivot. But Denny's dissatisfaction with the complacent Whitshanks is important. He represents the antithesis of the house, the restless spirit struggling for freedom when the others all want security and prosperity. It was this that made me suspect that Denny was the son of Dane, the James Dean lookalike who is Abby's first love.

8. Why did Abby fall in love with Red when she saw him counting the tree rings?
Abby had to make a choice between bad boy boyfriend Dane who has asked her to spend the night with him and solid dependable Red and, like many women, she wants it both ways: the fun and sexiness of the free-spirited rebel and the safety of rich Red. This encapsulates the theme of the book.

10. On the train at the end, Denny sits next to a young teenage boy crying quietly. What is the significance of this scene?
Don't know, but it was a haunting image. I think it is Denny.

The reading group had an interesting discussion about this book. Two hated it, one because it was boring and one because it had no plot, it wasn't a 'story'. I can see the force of this argument although I have read a lot of great books which are really just character studies that ask questions about the experiences of living that we all share. It became very clear in the group's at times heated discussions that we really believed in the characters, some of us loving Abby and some of us hating her, Merrick being a "terrible woman" and Red being the quiet axle of the story. I argued strongly that the book did have a structure: Denny is the start and the end and the centrepiece is the death of Abby around which the whole book pivots. But the time shifting does indeed mean that it is not a 'story' in the conventional sense.

What does the book mean? I think it represented the battle within each one of us between the desire to be free and unencumbered, like Denny and the desire to have stability and prosperity, as represented by Red and the house. In the end they lose the house; this is a staple of the human condition: no matter how much security we achieve in the end we die. In the end our adolescent bid for freedom is, like Denny's, doomed; in the end we want to settle down. But the battle is in all of us. Junior, living from day to day and hand to mouth in the depression as a jobbing builder, dreamed of having a proper house in a respectable neighbourhood. Abby, torn between free spirit Dane and tree-ring-counting Red, chooses Red. Stem, the apparently orphaned little boy, has the stablest marriage of all of them.

February 2017; 465 pages

I have now also read Tyler's Vinegar Girl, a very funny observational comedy of modern life loosely based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

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