A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread focuses on three generations of the Whitshank family.  It opens in the present day with Abby and Red, their children having grown up and moved out.  As Abby and Red have aged, they’ve begun to struggle a little with day to day activities, and their children come together to look after them and to help out around the house.

The narrative then moves back in time, and we see Abby and Red in their youth and the moment that Abby falls in love with Red, before it moves back further in time to Red’s father, Junior, and his arrival in Baltimore as a young man and the story around how he came to build the house that is still inhabited by Abby and Red.

In this way, A Spool of Blue Thread seems like a fairly typical family saga, although starting in the present day and moving back in time gives it a bit of a twist.  Because of the reverse chronology, we get Abby and Red’s take on past events before we see what actually happened, and Tyler successfully highlights that the way in which we remember and narrate our history and family stories may not always fully reflect the reality of those past events.

I’ve not read anything by Tyler before, but I will definitely be seeking out more of her work on the basis of this novel.  She seems to have the skill of imparting a great amount of detail without the reader feeling as though they are being overburdened by it – it just slips into the narrative so beautifully that you barely even notice it’s there.  If I have one minor criticism, it’s that Abby and Red’s daughters (Amanda and Jeannie) aren’t as well developed as the rest of the family, and I didn’t get as strong a sense of their personalities as I did for the rest of the Whitshanks.

Overall, I enjoyed A Spool of Blue Thread.  That said, I’m a little surprised by it’s inclusion on the short list for this year’s Man Booker Prize.  In my opinion, this doesn’t match the complexity and originality of the other short listed titles that I’ve read.

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