I don’t suppose many other people have watched the film “Philomena” three times (I know, ridiculous) and will have a clue what I am rabbiting on about, but if you too are a fan of Judi Dench and everything she touches, you may just recall the scene in the airport in the special golf cart mobility aid thing when her character launches into a seemingly never-ending blow-by-blow narration of the (dreadful) romantic novel she has just finished, to fellow passenger Steve Coogan’s understandable discomfort.
“I didn’t see that one coming at all, did you, Martin?” she says about the ending, and it’s kind of a magical – and extremely touching – moment.
Anne Tyler does this kind of thing so well in her novels – she takes ordinary people and families leading often fairly unexceptional lives, and she portrays them in such a way that we feel that we recognise them and indeed come to care about what happens to them. As she comments for the Vintage Books interview, “Families are stuck with each other, for the most part. They can’t just give up and walk out as easily as mere friends and acquaintances can, so they afford writers a prime chance to study them at length to find out how they grate along together”.
As a novelist, she gives us slices of real life in such a deft way that there is something wholly familiar about her comments, and reading “A Spool of Blue Thread” recalled a chat I had with a lady who happens to be a mediation lawyer not so very long ago. Talking of a shared love for reading, Maître N said (and I paraphrase): “The great thing about books is that the more one reads the more you realise that pretty well everything’s been done before and that you/we and your/our situation are far from unique. And that can be pretty reassuring once the worst of it is behind you”. Her comments really struck me as a general thought, in a good way, and I do think A.T. is one of the novelists who has understood this perfectly.
Now in her seventies, A.T. has penned over 20 books and is clearly still going strong. I have plenty more to tuck under my belt, but really did love “Breathing Lessons” in particular, and it’s good to know there is more to get my teeth into. This latest novel, I suspect, may not be her greatest work, but it’s a cracking good read. Tackling the empty nest syndrome and the realities of aged parents, it is tinged with a sense of melancholy and nostalgia, and I absolutely loved the character of Abby :
“In the past, she had been at the center of things. She’d known everybody’s secrets: everyone confided in her… Nothing she heard had Abby relayed to anybody else, not even to Red. She was a woman of her word…”
“… What a temptation to let that slip! But she didn’t.”
And yet here lies the rub:
“And now she was so unnecessary that her children thought she should move to a retirement community”.
The story is composed of vignettes that move backwards and forwards in time, so you also get to see the Golden Oldies as younger people – which always seems so inconceivable when you are introduced to them in their waning years. Thought that was very well handled. And there is also a ‘sharp intake of breath’ moment. I love it when that happens. Every time it does I want to stretch out and (metaphorically) shake the author’s hand, in good old ‘merci pour le moment’ style!
In an interview with Tim Teeman of The Oh So Great Guardian back in February (but don’t read the v.g.i. review before the book because there it contains a whopping great blessed s-p-o-i-l-e-r), Anne comments: “My happiest moment is to be in the middle of a book. The characters are talking to me. Sometimes, one will make a joke I haven’t thought of and I’ll laugh”. Bloody marvellous.
Can’t help but feel that afternoon tea with this author would be an absolute treat, rather like hanging out with a much-loved aunt (in my case, the beloved Auntie Bunnie, now she would have loved this book). Will just have to console myself by settling with delving into another Anne Tyler in the meantime… “Ladder of Years, perhaps??
Read in May 2015.
Rating : 9/10
Shortlisted for the 2015 Baileys’ Fiction for Women prize