A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (Vintage, £7.99)
Anne Tyler’s latest novel is a stylish saga focusing on the Whitshanks, Baltimore builders for three generations. Retired social worker Abby and her husband Red—still climbing roofs in his sixties—are puzzling over their itinerant son Denny, who can’t hold down a job. He once announced he was gay but never mentioned it again, later marrying and arriving on the doorstep with a baby daughter before resuming radio silence. Now he and his three siblings have returned to the nest to care for their increasingly frail parents. Sparks fly, not least between Denny and youngest son Stem, the appointed heir to the family trade.
What looks simple isn’t: Tyler withholds secrets about the biological parentage of two characters and boldly kills off the one who most holds our attention with half the novel remaining. Late on, she takes a left turn into the back stories of Abby and Red’s youth as well as those of their parents, revealing the painful tale of how Red’s bullying father came to Baltimore in the first place. While the pathos builds, there’s nothing solemn here: gentle comedy is made out of hearing loss and other trials of age without descending into farce.
While the Whitshank reunion can be excruciating—especially Abby’s exchanges with her evangelical daughter-in-law Nora, who insists on calling her “Mother Whitshank” as she sets about assuming control of the household—there’s deep and generous sympathy in a novel that reminds us that every story has another side.