‘A beautifully controlled and compelling novel’ – A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
Spool is a tricky word, both noun and verb, which contains a tangle of meanings. It doesn’t quite have the doubleness of its near synonym, ravel – a word which means both to come apart and be put back together again – but it hints at things that have come asunder being wound back into place. As an object within the novel, it is a ball of thread used to mend wedding clothes to be worn at a funeral, a potent and ambiguous souvenir which, like Tyler’s novel, brings past and present together in unexpected and sometimes troubling ways.
Questions about how the past can shape the present, or whether it can ever really be shrugged off, are threaded throughout the book. More than one character examines the growth rings of a tree and family stories and traditions are told, retold and mulled over. Someone contemplates a blue paint stain on a pathway and imagines that it won’t ever come out without digging it up and starting over again; ‘the walk would be marked indelibly, engraved with Swedish blue for all time’.
As the novel opens, Red and Abby Whitshank receive a call from Denny, their most unreachable, unruly son. It ends badly, with a loss of contact which wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last. Later, learning second-hand that he has dropped out of college, Abby thinks ‘Denny had withdrawn; he was withdrawn; he had withdrawn from the family years ago’. This episode isn’t the beginning of the story, or the end, or, in any clearly defined way, the middle. It is part of a spooled family history; the place where Tyler takes up a thread that runs forward and as well as back. From here, she unspools the ordinarily extraordinary story of a family who live in one house over several generations.
The Whitshank’s house was built by Red’s father, Junior, a builder who pulled himself up by his bootstraps in the aftermath of the Great Depression and established the construction business his son has since inherited. It was built as part of Junior’s cherished scheme to craft a new life for himself. ‘He liked to gaze up the stairs and imagine his daughter sweeping down them, an elegant young woman in a white satin wedding gown. He envisioned the dining-room table lined with a double row of grandchildren’. It is the way he takes charge of his life and tries to shape his future: ‘Everything till now had been makeshift – his ragtag upbringing, his hidey-hole courtship, his limping-along marriage, and his shabby little rented house in a rundown neighbourhood. But now that was about to change. His real life could begin.’
Junior’s housebuilding starts to seem almost like storytelling. And he isn’t alone; this novel is full of people telling stories that explain the family to itself, ‘embroidered and conjectured upon any number of times’. The Whitshanks tell two such ‘quintessential’, ‘defining’ stories. Both of which we – and they – come to suspect are tales of failure masquerading as success. One is of their grandfather building their house and then sneakily appropriating it, the other of their aunt Merrick stealing away her friend Pookie’s wealthy fiancé, Trey. The house never seems to live up to Junior’s hopes of it – he is always tweaking this or that as though it isn’t quite finished. And Merrick discovers that the mean-spirited tales she told about Trey when he was Pookie’s fiancé weren’t too far off the mark after all. These might not be especially grand foundation myths – in fact ‘an outside observer might say they weren’t stories at all’ – but ‘the Whitshanks were such a recent family, so short on family history’, that they had to make do.
But another story emerges as the novel unspools. ‘Clearly they couldn’t look to Red for stories’ his children think: ‘Red just went ahead and married Abby Dalton, whom he had known since she was twelve’. But this too-ordinary, over-looked story is, to some extent, the one we are reading, and it doesn’t seem insignificant or unremarkable at all. A few times, Abby starts to tell the story about the day she began to fall in love with Red, saying ‘It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon’. Towards the end of the book Tyler takes up her thread, at which point it starts to seem like this was the story we were reading all along. Certainly it strikes a tonic chord which brings the whole muddled, sprawling saga together around a single focus.
Alongside all this meaning-seeking storytelling we see Abby, in some sense the centre of the family and the book, beginning to unravel. Early on, she starts to have alarming blackouts. She makes muddled connections between the distant past and an increasingly bewildering present. Her daughter-in-law makes an appointment for Abby to see a gerontologist called Dr Wiss and, though nervous she thinks ‘“I can do this, because I’m so familiar with my mother’s Wiss pinking shears”. And the exact, clunky weight of those shears instantly came to her mind’. This vivid memory of ‘the too-thick handle loop that pressed uncomfortably against the bone at the base of her thumb, and the initial balkiness as the heavy teeth began chewing into the fabric’ is abruptly interrupted when she realises that ‘the one kind of Wiss had nothing to do with the other.’ The all-important connections between past and present have started to misfire.
The novel ends with Red relinquishing the home his father built. The family leave at Halloween after decorating the porch, as they always had, with homemade ghosts and these ‘filmy-skirted ghosts frolicked and danced on the porch with nobody left to watch.’
Any Cop?: A Spool of Blue Thread is an understated novel about the making and unmaking, storytelling and myth-busting, of family life lived over generations. Though it seems to have only the most homely concerns, this beautifully controlled and compelling novel guides us with effortless grace through a sprawling history. By painting an intricate portrait of ordinary family life Tyler shows us that, once you scratch the surface, there really isn’t any such thing.
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- August 28, 2015 / 9:00 am