A Spool of Blue Thread and The Moor’s Account

I have now finished books #3 and #4 in the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel, Lalai Lalami’s The Moor’s Account and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I listened to on audio. As a side note, the only way I’m making it through the 13-book list if I make it at all is by listening to some of them on audio, although I would prefer to read them in print. On the one hand, it’s hard to compare the experience of an audio book with sitting down with the printed text, but on the other hand I can squeeze audio book listening into parts of my day where the reading of a book or ebook is impossible. So I’ll be listening to Anne Enright’s and (most likely) Marilynne Robinson’s novels on audio as well.

I think audio book listening may have improved the experience of reading Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I liked more than I expected. This is generally the case with audio books, that I’m less likely to be critical of them than print books, as the experience is more immersive and emotional with an actual person telling me the story. I’ve read a couple other Tyler novels and thought they were fine but nothing special, and I feel that way about this novel as well. Her prose is especially well-suited for listening, as it’s crystal clear, easy to follow, and never draws attention to itself. It’s always in the service of the story. I generally look for the opposite in novels — I like it when the language is interesting and new and even when it calls attention to itself, at least in certain ways. I’m not likely to be impressed by a novel that is a straight-forward story without anything interesting going on stylistically. I’m guessing that Tyler-like prose is much more difficult to write than it seems, but even so, I don’t think I’d choose it to win an award.

But Tyler can certainly tell a family story well. This is a multi-generational story, focusing particularly on Abby and Red Whitshank and their four children. It’s very much a story about their house, longed for and finally bought by Red’s father and now lovingly cared for by Red. There are the kind of rivalries, secrets, betrayals, and family lore that one expects from a family saga and it’s all insightful and true to human nature. The plot lagged a little in the middle, but the last quarter or so, which took the novel in surprising directions that I won’t spoil here, were satisfying.

It’s all fine, but nothing I get excited about. I felt the same way about The Moor’s Account, although I liked it less than the Tyler. Lalai Lalami’s novel is historical fiction, telling the story of Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico by others, who is sold into slavery and sails from Spain to the Gulf of Mexico. The expedition is in search of conquest and gold, and Estebanico is in a complex position as a member of the (supposedly) conquering party but only a member as a slave. The expedition fails spectacularly and the process of things falling apart is compelling, at least for a while. The history was interesting and I enjoyed getting a glimpse of what life in that time and place might have been like. The novel’s writing was fine, although, like Tyler’s, not particularly noteworthy. I enjoyed the first half or so, and then my energy and attention flagged. When it comes down to it, historical fiction is not really my thing. I like imagining the past, but if there comes a point — as there did in this book — where the described world is pretty well established and all that remains is the unwinding of the plot, I begin to lose interest. By the end, I just didn’t care what happened to the characters. I agree with Teresa’s assessment that this is not the kind of book I’d expect to see on the long list of a major prize.

Now I turn to Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family and Anne Enright’s The Green Road on audio. As things stand now, I would put A Little Life on my short list and maybe The Fishermen, but definitely not The Moor’s Account and A Spool of Blue Thread only if the others were no good at all. Which I know is not the case!

12 Comments

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12 responses to “A Spool of Blue Thread and The Moor’s Account

  1. I’ve heard some good things about Spool. I think I’ll have to check it out. Either way thanks for sharing the interesting and honest thoughts!

    If you’re ever interested in some other awesome book reviews and literary musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!

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  2. I think I liked The Moor’s Account more than you did, but only because I enjoy historical fiction more than you do. It’s interesting, though, to sit it next to something like The Illuminations, which is trying to do more complex things but is not entirely successful (IMO), and I’m not sure which I’d choose to shortlist. I’m hoping that at least three of the seven I have left are stand-outs, so it doesn’t come down to making that choice.

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    • I’m hoping it doesn’t come down to difficult decisions either. I’m having some of the same feelings about the Clegg, which I liked very much, but which isn’t really new. I doesn’t compare in any way to the complexity of the James, for example. It feels strange putting them on the same short list.

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  3. I haven’t yet read the new Anne Tyler. I guess I’m saving it. She’s one of my favorite authors, but I tend to love stories of family dynamics and quirky characters who feel real. She’s a master at that kind of tale, in my opinion. I agree with you that I’m less critical of audio books, it’s such a different experience from reading on the page. But the reader has a lot to do with my enjoyment too! Good to know your opinion of The Moor’s Account, I’m sort of on the fence about wanting to read that one.

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  4. I feel the same about Tyler as you do, she is a good, competent writer who can tell a good story but I’ve never been wowed by anything of hers. So I was surprised to see her book on the prize list and I thought maybe I was wrong about her but you reassure me that I’m not.

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  5. Although known for not doing many interviews, I heard Anne Tyler interviewed by both Harriet Gilbert (for Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, but discussed shortly after the publication of Blue Thread) on BBC and Eleanor Wachtel on CBC, and I really enjoyed the conversations, both of them equally. Her verbal style strikes me as very similar to what I have found of her on the page, slowly and steadily she woos me, secures my interest (often largely without my awareness) and by the end of the novel I realize that I have been charmed wholly and completely. Sometimes, she makes me cry (which I both applaud and resent!) in the last chunk of pages. I do think her style looks deceptively simple, but I also agree with your ache for something more, for I love something extra stylistically in a prizewinner. Good luck with your next reads!

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  6. People have been raving about A Spool of Blue Thread since it was released earlier this year. I’ve eyed it on more than one occasion, but there is something about it that keeps telling me to pass on it. Thanks to you, perhaps audio is the way to go, if I ever feel a driving urge to read it.

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    • I definitely think that audio is the way to go if you are feeling at all ambivalent about it, although I found that the narrator read awfully slowly. I think they could have found someone better for it. But still, it’s a good way to get caught up in the world she creates.

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  7. We all seem to be favoring the use of the word “fine” in some of our more polite assessments.🙂 All of us that have read the Tyler seem to agree – surprisingly more than we thought it would be but just not enough. You and I also felt the same way about The Moor’s Account. The only definite I have right now is the McCarthy. A Little Life is sitting at the top of what Teresa refers to as the “middlers” for me. If nothing else shines soon, it may make the cut. And the Clegg has risen in my estimation as I’ve read through the list. I didn’t see that coming.

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