Pull at this thread with caution

With my mid-to-late year’s resolution to read more contemporary books, I plunged with gusto this week into Man Booker Prize shortlisted book ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler. I hadn’t read any of Tyler’s work before so I will admit I was quite unsure of what the style would be and if it would work. After all, the story didn’t sound the most action packed so one’s enjoyment of the book would depend purely on it being written well. No pressure then…

As it turns out, I can honestly say I’ve never been so enthralled with so little plot. Spool, (as I’m going to shamelessly call it) is an absolute masterpiece of character development, which is all it has - and needs - to keep you hooked. This is in no small part due to there being so a wide range to write about; Tyler is rather Christie-esque with her use of many, many characters popping up. But unlike reading an Agatha Christie story, I never once felt the need to draw up a family tree just to keep track. Unlike Christie (forgive me Aggie), all the characters felt like real people rather than a 2D representation of a person. I could no more forget the characters in Spool than I could forget members of my own family*.

So right away, you adore these characters, all the generations of the Whitshank family, and genuinely care about what happens to them, which it turns out isn’t an awful lot. Like any normal family they get married, bicker with siblings, suffer losses, move house, but that really is the extent of it. There doesn’t seem to be much story arc once you sit back and think about it, and even the time line skips about with no real apparent reason, and the story just ends, right when you feel it’s about to get interesting.

Not only that, but when I look back the one residual feeling I get from reading it is melancholy. The whole book has a wistful, nostalgic feeling to it, the type one gets when you hear a song long forgotten or think of a friend you haven’t thought of in decades. Despite nothing that tragic happening, whenever I would put the book down I would be left with such a feeling of melancholy that took a few minutes to shake. Perversely, I always love books that can do that, that are so powerful the feeling from them clings on long after you turn the final page (or flick the final page - against every traditionalist bone in my body I was reading this on Kindle for speed’s sake!).

So there was little plot, too many characters, an odd conclusion, and the whole thing made me feel bit weepy. All these things would be a reason to complain with any other book, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to think badly of it as I enjoyed the meandering journey so much. So not so much damned by faint praise as… blessed with strong criticism? So yes, I liked this book, go read it - but don’t say I didn’t warn you!

* and with 5 sets of aunts and uncles and 15 cousins, believe me that is sometimes a challenge!

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