A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread is a family saga woven around the Whitshanks’ treasured house. Beginning and ending with the problem child, Denny, the novel unravels the reasons for his troubled behaviour offering us insights into three generations of Whitshanks, their dreams, their relationships and their secrets.

There is much to love about the novel. It would be hard to read about this family and not feel any sense of recognition. The dialogue and psychology of family drama is sharp and insightful. That doesn’t always mean it makes for pleasant reading.

There are too many ways in which an unpicking of this book would spoil the flow of the plot as it moves back, further back and then forward again in time through its four parts and I don’t want to spoil the plot when you have underage sex, coerced marriage, illegal adoption and fake burglary to enjoy. I do, however, want to unpick what it is that stops me loving this book wholeheartedly.

A Spool of Blue Thread is astute and interesting but it is also a little sentimental; its message about life is underwhelmingly safe. There is mystery, disappointment, love, death, and the unending process of simply carrying on – this is of course all true to life – but the risk and suffering in some of the characters lives never really comes through for me. There are some wonderful moments and Anne Tyler is undoubtedly a writer with a keen observational eye but I think in the end this novel, for me at least, lacks a clear message and possibly even a sense of drama.

This isn’t an easy thing to write, given that I think it’s unlikely I would be able to write this kind of family saga with anywhere near the same level of skill, but I simply wanted A Spool of Blue Thread to give me more.

I have no doubt that many will and already do love this book, and I did enjoy reading it, but ultimately it isn’t for me.

Next week I’m reading Minna Needs Rehearsal Space and Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors.

Salt by Jeremy Page

The youngest of a family grown from Norfolk’s saltmarshes, Pip tells his own story through the legends of his family’s past. His stories cover the lives of three generations who scrape a life from the land that is almost sea.

His grandmother reads the future in the clouds and fears that everyone will leave her. His grandfather arrives buried in mud and soon covered in samphire. And the history of birthing and leave-taking mingle with the rhythm of the ocean, with the coming and going of the marshland that writes the landscape into the histories of the people who live there.

Jeremy Page’s writing has a magical quality that lends Norfolk and its people a timeless, mythical quality. Pip and his family are too grounded in the land to be changed by the speed of modernity and so Salt drifts free of temporal moorings and into ancient stories of Old Norse and the rhythms of the season.

I could go into the details of Pip’s story but I don’t want to offer spoilers for a novel that creeps its quiet way into the pulsating heart of the earth whose waters rise and fall with the same regular but occasional wildness of our own breathing. There is an inevitability, an ingrained nature to Pip’s story that makes Salt a bleak comedy you would be hard-pressed not to enjoy.

Next week I’m reading A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

Emma O’Donovan has just turned eighteen. She is beautiful, conscious of behaving nicely, and popular because of it. She understands what is expected of her and what she has to gain from life with a body and face like hers.

Her beauty is the focus of her mother’s love as well as Emma’s own fantasies. In fact, the novel is more successful because Emma isn’t a particularly pleasant character. She is the bitch she tries so hard to suppress in public. Until [and this is where those who don’t want spoilers need to stop, though the novel isn’t about plot surprises but more about forcing the reader to confront difficult truths] one night she gets carried away trying to prove she is more than others imagine and passes out having drunk too much and taken too many unknown drugs.

The following day her parents find her collapsed on the lawn, sunburn streaked across a lot of exposed flesh. When she goes into school on the Monday her friends shun her and even the most unpopular kids don’t want to sit with her all because of what has appeared on Facebook, uncompromising images that haunt her, forcing her from eating lunch in the bathroom, through refusing to go in to school, to suicide attempts.

The novel jumps ahead a year and Emma has pressed charges of rape, a word she is deeply uncomfortable with. She has begun to feel that the rape charges are not only ruining her own life but everyone else’s too: her parents’ business prospects dwindle, they are shunned by old friends; her brother loses his girlfriend; the boys whose lives were about to take off into university or rugby teams are faced with a life of stigma. Emma feels guilty. Emma feels ashamed.

As you would expect from the title, the reader is forced to think about how a women could ever ask for rape. Issues surrounding beauty, clothing and behaviour are raised so that we must ask ourselves about consent and how it should be understood and valued.

I won’t say what happens in the end, but I will say that the ending is brief. I felt frustrated by it, not because of Emma’s decision (there is a different sense of frustration there, a frustration felt for the character rather than with the novel) but because we don’t get to see how that decision plays out in anyone’s life. I feel Louise O’Neill could have written more. I wanted to see how Emma would feel later in her life. What she would think of her parents, her friends and her own decisions. Whether she would learn to forgive herself and make peace with her body or whether her life would amount to nothing more than literally keeping the peace through maintaining a silent withdrawal.

Asking For It is painful to read because there is no way of escaping the ingrained misogyny that is very much a part of our modern world. A world in which parents expect different things of their sons and daughters, where women speak differently to men, where young girls are taught to value beauty over character and to see sex as a badge of popularity or conquest, a measure of self-worth, and as a tool for building success. Asking For It asks if our progressive technological society has regressed in its use of social media where constantly updated images displace us further and further from ourselves: we are what we appear to be. It is no surprise that Emma’s self-loathing is fueled by her loss of control over these social media images.

Asking For It is billed as a young adult novel, and I can see that it could be a useful, if harrowing, book for young people to read, but I think the novel has a wider scope and says something about the way we live that demands attention from an adult readership. Clever, punchy and painfully provocative, Asking For It is a novel that challenges the reader to think more deeply about the unspoken gender inequalities we tolerate in order to fit in.

Next week I’m reading Salt by Jeremy Page.

Mister Spoonface by Paul Blaney

The novel opens as Fred Pooley returns to London for the first time in six years. He’s been living in Hong Kong doing nothing much more than work. When spontaneous bouts of crying force him to reconsider his life, he returns to England to try to understand and expunge the gaping hole he feels inside.

He seeks new occupations – writing workshops, a pretty woman – but can’t help reconnecting with his first love, Sally, even though it was their break-up that sent him to Hong Kong six years ago. She now has a daughter and this starts Fred thinking about what it would have been like if they’d had a child of their own and a desire to be a parent, something Fred would never have believed he was capable of before (especially as he persuaded Sally to have an abortion), begins to overwhelm him. He is plagued by a sense of missed opportunity.

All those years ago Fred donated sperm to a clinic, what if his sperm had been used to create children? If there were children running around with Fred’s DNA inside their cells shouldn’t he know about it? Wouldn’t he have some responsibility for their well being? Shouldn’t he look in on them if he could?

And then the pretty woman gets him a job working for a fertility firm, the same company Fred visited all those years ago…

Add the complications of a mother Fred doesn’t want to contact and a Father who deserted him before he was even born, and Mister Spoonface becomes a novel that takes a deep hard look not only at what it means to be a father or a parent, but what it means to be alive at all. That gaping hole Fred feels isn’t just about reproduction, it’s about making sense of the world in whatever way humans can.

The perfect novel for book club debate, Mister Spoonface is a quick and provocative read that forces the reader to question their own assumptions about parenthood, reproduction and the responsibility involved in forging and maintaining emotional connections. As we follow Fred Pooley’s journey into obsession, we are forced to look deep into ourselves.

Next week I’m reading Asking For It by Louise O’Neill. I’ve built up a rather large list of books I want to read while I’ve been taking a break from blogging, but it is fun to be back and great to start with Paul Blaney’s novel. I hope to interview him in a few weeks for Authors QH. I’ll keep you posted.