Booker Prize 2015: American Families

I’ve already done one post about families, but it really is such an important part of fiction that I find myself here again. This time, though, I’m going by culture: this is all about the modern American family and how two very different authors view these relationships.

Bill Clegg has a history as a literary agent, but Did you ever have a family is his first attempt at writing fiction. Set in a small town, it looks at how one event changes the lives not just of one family, but several.

The characters themselves weave a tangled web: Lolly and Will are about to be married, when the house in which they are staying in their hometown goes up in smoke. Racked by guilt and depression, Lolly’s mother June is also mourning the loss of her partner, Luke, who is being blamed for the blaze. Meanwhile, Luke’s mother Lydia is also coming to terms with the loss of her son, while also being stalked by Silas, the teenager who was first on the scene of the house.

It’s a dense set of relationships to get your head around—particularly in such a short book—and it takes some time for them to all come into focus. The novel shifts around fairly quickly, moving not only from character to character, but also to past and present, and sometimes future. Slowly, as these people resolve into something more than shapes in fog, we see the full tragedy.

These people were already broken: June’s relationship with her daughter was fraught ever since she found love with Luke, a man the same age as Lolly, and a former convict. Luke, meanwhile, had finally found meaning in his life after being cut free by Lydia, a single mother left with a son that no one wanted, who was trying to find a sense of belonging in her own life. The cruel irony of this novel is that just as these people have found each other to begin the process of creating a new family, their lives are ripped apart, and once more scattered to the winds.

The twist, such as it is, is literally signposted from the first page, so if you’re expecting huge revelations at the end of this experience, prepare to be disappointed. Perhaps like so many things in our lives, there is no meaning behind such seismic events—just a mistake made by a person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But Clegg doesn’t seem to be interested in shocking or aweing us into submission: Did you ever have a family is a surprisingly small-scale story that, while anything by optimistic throughout, does seem to end on a hopeful note, that people can actually get past, or at least come to terms with, horrific events.

A spool of blue thread, by Anne Tyler, is an altogether lighter affair. Though she’s been around forever, I’ve never read any of Tyler’s other works, but it certainly seems that this one is emblematic of her wider oeuvre, tending towards the cute and the cosy as opposed to anything too heavy.

The question, then, is whether this approach works. Clearly some of this will be down to personal preference, but if, as an author, you are keeping things light, you have to be very good to prosecute cases about relationships—and humanity—without it seeming cloying or twee.

For the most part, Tyler pulls this off, and her soft tale of the Whitshank family is certainly engaging. Even though she does deal with some pretty heavy topics—including accidental kidnapping and parental death—at no stage are you overwhelmed by the weight of these themes that, in the hands of others, could be too much.

The Whitshank family is well drawn: the father, Red, is a typical old man, hard of hearing, and good with his hands. His wife, Abby, is a recovering 1960s hippie, still prone to random acts of kindness towards strangers, and still slightly overbearing in the eyes of her children. Those children (Denny, Mandy, Jeannie and Stem) have grown up, and while three of them are biologically Whitshanks, the last—Stem—is the result of what can legally be described as an accidental kidnapping. It’s a weird moment, but Tyler uses it to remind us that family is not just those people who are born to and around us, but the people who choose to live with and call our own.

The limitations of this style are perhaps most keenly felt in this relationship between Denny and Stem. The two have an uneasy relationship: as a child, Denny resented Stem for coming into their house and instantly becoming their father’s favourite. Whether directly because of this or not, Denny’s life has been fractured and unsettled, much to the dismay of the rest of the Whitshank family, who all have stable families and careers. This all comes to a head when Denny and Stem start physically fighting, but this tends to get lost in a novel that, in some ways, shies away from really getting into the heads of these two men.

Though the novel does go back through time to explain both Abby and Red’s courtship, as well as Red’s parents, these two stories are not as interesting as the dynamics of the present day family—except for the small matter of Red’s mother being about 15 years younger than his father, which was a problem when they met when she was 14. These pieces of family hagiography are nice, but don’t add that much to the central plot.

There’s room in the world, I think, for this kind of relaxed novel. I don’t think we all want to read A little life every time we crack open a book. The danger, though, of novel like A spool of blue thread is that they become so calm as to be unforgettable. And while this was a pleasant and engaging way to spend a few days, it’s safe to say I won’t be thinking about the Whitshanks into the future.

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