I posted recently about my fairly appalling record with Booker Prize winning/shortlisted titles so I decided that this would be the year when I broke my apparent one book rule. I prowled around the shortlist table at work – shamelessly trying to work out which were the shortest/quickest to read – and then plumped for a couple of titles which the helpful folk at Random House had made available on Netgalley. One, Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, was on my personal wish list of ‘short books’ and the other was the slightly more substantial A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.
Let’s start with Satin Island. Being rather shallow I decided that 176 pages wouldn’t take me long (the Anne Tyler is 480…)* so I threw myself into the world of U., an anthropologist working for a large modern company – only ever referred to as ‘The Company’ – and tried to ignore all the reviews that referred to the book as being avant-garde. Because I’m not sure I like avant-garde…
Maybe I’m better at the modernist/post-modernist/other sorts of -ist stuff than I thought, however, as I found the book to be quite absorbing. I have friends who studied anthropology to degree level and worked in a University bookshop where textbooks on the subject featured quite heavily so I felt fairly familiar with the basics. I think I even got to the fact that the study of material culture has given way to that of social and cultural anthropology before the plot did so I did feel like a bit of a genius. Briefly. Until I was bludgeoned down by all the references to Leibniz, Nietzsche and Levi-Strauss. Oh well, it was good while it lasted…I was particularly amused by the fact that the study (and associated ‘Smart Thinking’ type book) which made U.’s name in the 90s was on the tribes of club culture – I reckon if I searched hard enough I could find the real life version.
What I got from the book as a whole – since it didn’t really do plot – was mostly the fact that modern businesses, and much of modern life, seem to need people with backgrounds in a number of subjects if they are to understand how they operate (especially in the wider world). Although I have a feeling that Sir Alan Sugar would not agree. He certainly wouldn’t employ someone who basically did so little at work that even Dirk Gently would have trouble justifying his salary. In fact, in the end, the book seemed to me to be a critique of the way that the world of business and money and modernity can suck all the goodness out of any academic discipline and make it, well, undisciplined. The modern world is not about what you know but about how you present your findings.
A Spool of Blue Thread, on the other hand, is a novel about, on the face of it, very normal people to whom not very much happens. The Whitshanks are a family who are not brilliant, beautiful or rich – they are average and familiar. While you may not know the whole family you know aspects of them – the bossy older sister, the mother who, by trying to draw her children to her, can make them resent her interference or the one child who doesn’t quite fit in (or, indeed, want to). It is not that you dislike them or that they are bad people – they are just people.
I have seen some listings which describe this as ‘women’s fiction’ but that would seem to deny the place that men take in building a family. And the menfolk in the Whitshank family are easily as interesting as the women – the relationship between brothers Denny and Stem is dealt with in far more detail than any of their two sisters’ connections – and have most of the secrets as far as I can see. And secrets seem to be at the heart of the story. The family seems so ordinary and there is very little that actually happens but we do gradually dig deeper into those secrets. They are, on the whole, not major revelations but they do mean a lot to those involved and they shape how the family is formed.
I think I have picked a good year to expand my Booker repertoire as I have enjoyed all three of the shortlisted titles I have read. I still feel that A Little Life will win (it has that special something and it does tick so many of the boxes which win prizes) but the judges this year, hopefully, will have enjoyed their work…
*I read the 480 pages in a day less than the 176. Go figure, Anne Tyler is just very, very readable.