Age is on my mind these days.
Not my own; I may be staring down the barrel of thirty, but inside I’ve felt a solid 34 for years. Birthdays are still the chance for a knees up, even if that now means wine pairing and babysitters rather than clubs and shots (*shudder* – see, I’m an imposter 29 year old). No – old age. Becoming elderly. The tragedy of it. Sickness, loneliness, mental infirmity, financial worries… and the more insidious elements: how a vibrant character morphs in peoples’ minds and treatment into some vague old buffer, not to be taken seriously. Isn’t that the ultimate tragedy? Or the ultimate joke on a younger generation who will eternally feel like they invented vitality, edge and street-smarts?
A Spool of Blue Thread is Tyler’s 20th novel but the first I’ve read. It tells the story of three generations of the Whitshank family, spilling in and out of their big, generous, thick-veranda’d house in a quiet suburb of Baltimore. It was shortlisted for this year’s Booker (the winner is on my shelf waiting to be read, Prize-Fans). It’s no surprise it didn’t win – it does not shout its value like typical Booker winners (which, to be frank, I prefer.) It’s an altogether more subtle book.
It starts with today: the four adult children of Red and Abby Whitshank, reconvening around the family home to look after their ageing parents, not the forces they once were. The four in paroxysms of adulthood and responsibility, raising their eyebrows at the grumps and quirks of their batty ageing parents and recalling the stories that made their family what it is.
But then Tyler starts to do something odd. After a thick first section of present day, the book begins to spool back through time and generations. You can’t see why she’s doing it at first – we’ve seen the end, why show us the beginning? It takes a while to realise that Tyler is gently dismantling the myths and assumptions of the family. Quickly, the lives of the self-entitled, self-important younger generation become banal, their fading parents presented in their youths – and then Tyler spools back once again to the generation above. With each shift, the stories become more edgy, the struggles harsher, the characters more intense. The romanticised stories remembered by today’s generation are undermined – for the important elements have been completely forgotten. The faded, weak matriarch figure, barely remembered, is in her present day the strongest, most thrusting character in the book. Each generation views the one above as foolish, irrelevant – but their lives are more vivid and intriguing.
I should say, however, that you have to sit and think to GET this. Because the first thing you get from this book is light accessibility. You could even argue that its very readability works against it. For you could read the whole book with your critical faculties closed and find it nothing more than a little multi-generational family tale that doesn’t really go anywhere. What, you may wonder (OK, I wondered), is her message here? Aging, hurt, family quibbling. The fare of many an italic-titled book. You have to invest some thought to perceive a higher purpose.
And this, it turns out, puts me at the critical crux: between those who view Tyler as cosy, relentlessly positive, too inclined to the positive in life – and those that see Tyler’s brilliance at presenting real families, without melodrama, with observation, with insight. In truth, its very simplicity makes it difficult to get stuff from. But don’t be deceived by its easy-breeziness. You need to put in to get back, not take it at face value. Just like old people, in fact. Damn, that Tyler’s clever.