Anne Tyler’s 20th novel will bring joy to her legions of admirers. It is the story of three generations of the Whitshank family, starting with Junior, his wife and two children, and, most importantly, the house he built, the repository of his life’s significance. The house passes down through the generations, along with Junior’s construction company and the inherited twists of character and talent that reappear in different permutations, nature and nurture at odds, surprising and unquenchable. The titular spool serves as a metaphor for the passing down of these things, a powerful reassurance.
The novel moves back and forth through time, ranging from the 1950s to the present day, from the original construction of the house through its long occupation to its final abandonment as the family disperses. Although members of each generation receive respectful attention and space, two characters dominate: Abby and Denny. Abby is the wife of Red, who takes over the house and business after Junior’s sudden death. They have four children, mainly grown up and with children of their own. Denny is Abby’s third child. Abby is obsessed with family perfection: they are all to be seen and admired by the neighbourhood as they sit in decorative arrangement on their vast and fabulous porch. Most of the time she believes that they are almost unique: they ‘radiate clannishness and togetherness and just … specialness’. Her role is to maintain and nourish this structure, infinitely loving and supportive. She must be involved and necessary at all times. Denny takes up the French horn; Abby sings along to the orchestral parts of a Mozart concerto. For weeks the house is filled with recordings of this piece. Denny gives up the French horn. He is the moody sort and she drives him nuts. ‘She just had to jostle him out of it. She wanted her loved ones to be happy!’ To this end, in a supermarket aisle, she starts to dance to her favourite song, ‘Good Vibrations’. ‘She dipped and sashayed and dum-da-dummed around Denny as if he were a Maypole’. This incident does not become part of her repertoire of clannish stories.
Denny, who is ten at the time, would probably now be diagnosed with some form of Asperger’s; he becomes a relentless saboteur of the happy family idyll. In his late teens he fails to hold down jobs, disappears for weeks, then months, then years without communication, comes back suddenly and leaves again at any hint of criticism. His siblings also find Abby’s overwhelming concern intrusive and suffocating, but they are wary of Denny and his manipulation of their parents’ hopes and fears and, indeed, love. An agonising passage shows the family on their annual beach holiday, without Denny of course. Suddenly they hear Mozart’s Horn Concerto issue from a car radio; within moments they have convinced themselves that Denny has come to join them: ‘“It’s him!” you say. “He came! We knew he would; we always…” But then you hear how pathetic you sound, and your words trail off into silence, and your heart breaks.’
In several of Tyler’s earlier novels, the daffiness of the heroine and her general good-tempered tolerance have struck me as irritating and not credible. Initially I was anxious that Abby might prove to be such a character. But in A Spool of Blue Thread we are given a detailed portrait of someone who does genuinely try to be good and who does care for others, who can see through her own delusions and become self-critical. Sometimes she is aware that in her vacuous cheeriness she sounds like the Mom in a TV show. She annoys herself by being annoyed by her daughter-in-law, who calls her Mother Whitshank as if she were ‘an old peasant woman in wooden clogs and a headscarf’. She even speculates that Denny may have been given the wrong mother. Tyler’s dialogue is a constant delight and often extremely funny. A child remembers his dead father singing to him. ‘How nice,’ cries Abby. ‘A lullaby?’ ‘No, it was about a goat.’ ‘Oh.’ Daughter Amanda, superficially in control and advantageously married, has status issues (like her grandfather Junior) and says some odd things. ‘Who eats casserole nowadays?’ she demands. Well, they all do, three times a week. And ‘Amazing Grace’ is not to be sung at a funeral because it has become a cliché.
Tyler’s relish for detail is another great pleasure. The house is so vividly described, without any laboriousness, that one could find one’s way around it. Likewise the porch and its time-honoured honey-glazed furniture. At Halloween eight gauzy ghosts are suspended from its ceiling – they are still there dancing when everyone has gone.
Abby, in her seventies, muses that she has spent too much of her past in worrying that she has not experienced enough and life has slipped away unremarked. Now she realises that so much is held in her memory and that she can recall sounds and smells as well as actions and consequences. At her funeral the priest will suggest that the afterlife may consist of a state of consciousness in which the dead rehearse their memories and experiences of this life and what it was like to be alive. Who knows? But that is the theme of this wonderful book.