Wellington journalist and former books pages editor Ruth Nichol chooses the novel that many of our experts also chose. Just go and buy it, okay?
I briefly thought Anne Tyler’s latest novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, would win the Man Booker Prize. What’s not to like – it’s clever, witty, wise and much more complex than it first seems.
Then I remembered that most Man Booker winners are either a load of old tosh (I give you Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question) or they make you work really, really hard. A Spool of Blue Thread never stood a chance; it’s much too engaging.
Set, like most of Tyler’s novels, in the comfortable middle-class suburbs of Baltimore, it’s the story of the Whitshank family – Red and Abby and their four adult children. Three of the four are married with children of their own; they live in close – though not always comfortable – proximity to their parents. The fourth, Denny, has long since quit the nest but he reappears from time to time, upsetting at least one family member in the process.
Tyler is an accomplished chronicler of family life and she’s in top form here. A Spool of Blue Thread has a few unexpected plot twists that create brief moments of excitement. But the real pleasure of the book comes from Tyler’s ability to create characters who are real and recognisable, and whose dialogue is so pitch-perfect you could be sitting in your own living room.
Cracking out three big novels in a year and a half is an impressive achievement – especially when, like Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy, they are well-written, exhaustively researched and provide a deeply satisfying reading experience.
The first in the series, Some Luck, was published in 2014. It’s been closely followed by the next two, Early Warning and Golden Age, both of which were published this year.
It was an ambitious project. The trilogy – effectively one book in three instalments – follows the fortunes of the Langdon family over 100 years, starting on their Iowa farm in 1920 and finishing in various US locations in 2020.
But Smiley pulls it off. Passion, pain, birth, death, war, politics, the GFC, global warming and the 2016 US elections (she predicts a Bush victory) – it’s all there. At times you sense the author pulling the strings to make sure her characters are close to the big events of American history. The vast cast of characters can get confusing too, though the family tree at the start of each book helps.
And the trilogy definitely deliver the goods. I have recently become a Last-Hundred-Years-mule, distributing my copies of the three books around a growing group of friends keen to get their next Smiley hit.
British writer Simon Mawer flies a bit under the radar, though his excellent novel The Glass Room – set in Czechoslovakia shortly before the Second World War – was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2009.
Since then he’s gone more mainstream, first with The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, published in 2012, and this year its sequel, Tightrope.
You probably don’t have to have to have read The Girl Who Fell from the Sky to appreciate Tightrope, though it would help. Both feature Marian Sutro, a Nancy Wake-like character who in the first book parachutes into south-west France as a special operations executive and is promptly captured by the Germans and sent to Ravensbruck.
In Tightrope we catch up with Marian in Britain after the war; it’s all dull afternoon teas and flower arranging. Before long, she’s back in the spying game and soon she’s caught up in complicated Cold War intrigue: double agents, Russian spies, the lot.
It sounds silly and Mawer himself has likened Marian to a female James Bond. But she’s a lot more than that. Mawer is good on the spying stuff, but he also skilfully conveys the uncertainties, the ambiguities and the occasionally maddening behaviour of a woman who has been scarred by unspeakable experiences.