Of little lives

Of little lives

Lead review

Of little lives

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Anne Tyler’s latest book, A Spool of Blue Thread, given the slightest tug, unwinds with all the smoothness of a ball of yarn. It recreates Tyler’s little world of an unremarkable family but as she holds up individual characters to light, we see their eccentricities, their oddness, their very humanness. With only a few strokes, she captures the quintessential nature of her characters and makes them our familiars.

It is Red and Abby Whitschank’s story. A couple ageing together comfortably. There are their children — Denny, Amanda, Jeannie and Stem. In their 70s now, Red’s heart attack and Abby’s lapses of memory cause much consternation among their children, and Stem, along with wife Nora, moves back to his parental house to provide care, much to Abby’s annoyance. In the face of Nora’s crisp efficiency, Abby feels relegated to childish days. A crippling sense of uselessness overcomes her.

Denny, their eldest son, has a track record of broken relationships and unemployment. He often disappears from the radar of his family. That he now returns home with the very same intention of providing care, completes the ludicrousness of the situation. Here they are all, under a roof that was built to last generations of Whitschanks. Abby is naturally pleased to have them there, but also piqued, and in this close rubbing of elbows, things pick up from where they were last laid to rest. Old annoyances, snide remarks, hurts and injuries preserved carefully over time are revived and given a new varnish. It is in this back and forth that Stem, ironically the most Whitschank of them all, stumbles upon the story of his adoption.

Like in a perfect flower where petal lies on petal, Tyler unfolds the story of Red and Abby Whitschank, and the larger story in which it is embedded, and the various stories that ensue from it.

The book weaves back in time to that of Red’s parents — Junior Whitschank and Linnie Mae, their courtship — which can hardly be called that, and their slow but steady rise in the world of prosperity.

At its core is the story of Junior Whitschank’s tenacity, his need to make it in the world, and to this purpose, he falls in love with a house. That house becomes a symbol for all that he is not and all that he wishes to be. Through trick or good-fortune (though one suspects the former rather than the latter) the house becomes his, and despite all his shortcomings — a working-class background, a countrified wife, his vision of a perfect life falls like a ripe fruit into his hands. Junior and Linnie-Mae’s two children are as alike as chalk and cheese. Merrick is her father’s daughter. Even as a child she is in training to rise above her humble origins. That she stops at nothing to inveigle her best friend’s fiancée into marrying her to help her move up in the world, follows naturally.

Then, there is the pain of a distorted relationship with Denny. In a family that hangs on to each other for support and strength, Denny is opaque, closed, simply so unWhitschank like, that it causes his parents much heartache. Abby and Denny dance to a special music of their own. She simply cannot let go and he is willing to cut her no slack. This distortion follows Denny into his life, in his half-hearted attempts at jobs and mismatched relationships. It’s Abby’s unexpected death that normalises things. Denny can now forgive his mother and feel her forgiveness, and from that other things can follow.

Abby’s funeral scene is masterful where “everybody is true to form” — Denny angry, Nora remorseful, Amanda looking for someone to blame. Tyler is an expert storyteller. Her canvas is limited to ordinary individuals in everyday situations. It is not the width of the canvas but its depth that is amazing. She does not attempt to solve the world’s problems, but claims a corner of the world for her own. The enormous compassion with which she deals with her characters is something uniquely Tylerish.

With A Spool of Blue Thread, Tyler’s 20th novel, she seems to have come a full circle.
Maggie’s flustered goodheartedness, her meddlesome gestures, her frothy friendliness that makes her invite total strangers to the bosom of her family, reminds one of Maggie in Breathing Lessons. Denny’s roughness, his refusal to let Abby smoothen out his edges, his latent animosity towards Stem bring to mind Cody of Dinner at Homesick Restaurant. Her characters are like old friends.

Like actors in a play, they slip into a new role with each new book. We are no strangers to the knotty problems that she writes about, for these are universal dilemmas. It is Tyler’s gentle touch that makes us love her.

A Spool Of Blue Thread
Anne Tyler
Vintage
2015, pp 480, Rs 399

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