This is the first time I’ve ever put an Anne Tyler book aside unfinished. I’m five hours into a thirteen-hour book and I’ve lost the will to continue.
As you would expect with an Anne Tyler book, “A Spool Of Blue Thread” is very well written. The language is precise but accessible, the dialogue is authentic and nothing is pretentious. The life of the family at the centre of the book spilled into my imagination, like toys falling from an over-stuffed wardrobe, from the first page onwards.
There are no characters in this book, only people. Characters have back-stories and personal quirks that move a plot along. Each one has a narrative that you know the author will disclose in a way that gives the most dramatic effect. I learned about the people in this book the way I would learn about anyone else: by repeated exposure, by shared stories, by watching how they treat each other and guessing how they see themselves. They have lives, not back-stories and this means they are messy, not easily defined, constantly changing and fundamentally incomplete.
I think I understand what Anne Tyler is doing with this book and I can see that she’s doing it well. “A Spool Of Blue Thread” frees itself from the conventions or narrative without falling into the vertiginous giddiness of continuous stream of consciousness. Anne Taylor seems to be setting out not to tell a story but to share the life of a family. She does this exposing us to the family in a variety of situations without establishing a dominant character or allowing the authorial voice to fill in the blanks. She invites you to immerse yourself in the lives of these people and form your own conclusions.
At first, I was fascinated. I’d never seen anything like this before. It was like watching Japanese artist bringing an object to life by adding layer after layer of paint and being amazed at the supernaturally bright finish her produces on what started as a simple piece of wood.
Unfortunately, after a while, reading the book became as compelling as watch lacquer dry to a fine finish. I began to understand why fiction and real life differ: real life happens and you make the best of it; fiction is designed to produce a particular effect. Real life is endured. Fiction should be enjoyed.
I stopped reading “A Spool Of Blue Thread” once I realised just how much like real life it was. There were parts of it that grabbed my attention and parts that slipped by me and some it that puzzled me but it wasn’t taking me anywhere. In the absence of a narrative thrust, I was stuck on a hamster wheel, watching everyone run in place. I was enduring it, not enjoying it.
So I’ve set it aside, conscious that I’m giving up on something unique and well crafted in favour of simple entertainment. If I was younger, I might see that as a character flaw. At this stage in my life, it just seems like being realistic about what I want. There are many parts of my life where I have to take things as they come but I’m not going to let reading become one of them.