When I think of Baltimore two things come to mind: Anne Tyler and The Wire, polar opposites in terms of subject matter but both supreme exemplars of their particular form of entertainment. The Wire tackles the gritty problems dogging Baltimore city – drugs, racial inequality, corruption – while Tyler specialises in nuanced portraits of family life on the other side of the tracks. But you probably don’t need me to tell you that. She’s won a Pulitzer and been lauded to the skies by the likes of Sebastian Faulks, Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle. I’ve chosen an all-male list deliberately after being told by H that he’s never read a Tyler mainly because he didn’t feel he was her audience. We’ll soon put that right.
A Spool of Blue Thread is the story of the Whitshanks told through the history of their house lovingly built back in the 1930s by Red’s father for whom it was the epitome of perfection. Now in their seventies, both Red and Abby are showing signs of ageing and Abby’s ‘absences’ – short periods when her ‘brain jumps the track’ – have become a concern. What to do? Three of their children live close by while Denny, the black sheep, lives who knows where. Stem and his wife decide to move in; then Denny turns up determined to play his part, resentful of Stem as ever. Amanda and Jeannie look on, dropping in now and again, discussing their parents over the phone and learning bits and pieces about the family they thought they knew inside out. Abby and Red, deluged with more help than they need, try their best to accommodate their children and adjust to their new status, not quite ready to hand on the baton.
This post could so easily degenerate into a paean of praise or even a gush but it’s hard to fault Tyler’s wonderfully perceptive dissection of family life with its exploration of that difficult and unsettling role reversal which takes place when parents are no longer in the driving seat. As ever she’s a master of ‘show not tell’, slipping in details of the Whitshank history, quietly fleshing out her characters, recounting affectionate stories as if she’s having a conversation with you about a family dear to her – then dropping the occasional bombshell so that all the cards are thrown up into the air. It’s familiar territory for fans like me but none the less satisfying for that. Her writing reminds me of a particular sort of English cottage garden, awash with summer colour: it all looks thrown together with the greatest of ease yet you know it’s an effect only achieved with supreme skill and attention to detail. Her canvas isn’t broad but her incisive intelligence, her sharp observation and her gentle yet sometimes barbed humour ensures that her fiction remains entertaining, vibrant and relevant. This is her twentieth novel and I hope it will be far from her last.