An inveterate reader of quality fiction entered the Bookworm and sighed that she’d just finished the perfect novel. She commenced to trawl the shelves for anything else by Anne Tyler and asked us to recommend other authors of the same ilk, as long as their tales made you sigh, “ah, perfection” when you’d read the final page.
The book she’d finished was A Spool of Blue Thread and was short-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize. Tyler is no lightweight, even though her books are deceptively easy to sink into. She’s been a Pulitzer Prize finalist three times.
Tyler has set most of her novels, populated by ordinary, middle-class, white people living generally ordinary lives, in Baltimore. Reading Tyler’s books you wouldn’t realize that Baltimore is considered to be one of the 15 most violent cities in America. Tyler’s ‘families’ are mostly insulated from the poverty that induces much of the crime and unrest, and from the majority of African-Americans and Latinos who account for two-thirds of the city’s population. Her characters would watch the crime TV series The Wire, set in Baltimore, with detachment.
This is not an observation, not a criticism, of Tyler’s literary output. Any good writer remembers the adage that you should write about what you know best, your own experiences. Tyler follows this advice and writes about ‘her’ Baltimore where she has lived most of her adult life (she’s now 73).
For the legions of Tyler fans the territory of her latest book is familiarly comfortable. A middle-class family ticks along with their tensions and secrets trickling beneath the surface. But then a sudden death to a member causes a fracture in the fabric that has been stitched together for three generations.
Facing her own mortality, in this story she introduces the traumas of senile dementia and the dilemmas that aging parents present to their adult children.
The vagaries of family relationships were a common theme in Elizabeth Jolley’s novels, mainly set in an upper-middle-class suburb in Perth, Australia. The Orchard Thieves deals with three generations over a six-month time frame. Adult males are not included.
Although none of her characters in the slim novel are named — referred to by their place in the family or, in the case of two rambunctious young boys, as rogues — they carry echoes of people in many of our own families.
In Jolley’s gothic-tinted world it is entirely normal to be abnormal. In a review of her work, the New York Times described her adult characters as often misfits, often lonely, slightly dotty, gently murderous, and occasionally monstrous. In The Orchard Thieves, her well-worn themes of “alienation, marginalization and unrequited longing,” as the New York Times called them, are played out. A lot of us will recognize ourselves in our relationships with other family members as we read about the mother, the unmarried elder daughter, the married middle daughter with sons, the youngest prodigal daughter who returns from overseas to the family home and orchard, bereft and pregnant. It’s she who scatters seeds of discord until the birth of a new female into the family allows tentative bonds to be retied and retested, and redemption and forgiveness shyly offered.
After Jolley’s death at 83 in 2006, researchers assumed that many of the mother-daughter relationships in her novels were influenced by those between the author and her strict Austrian mother in Depression-era England.
Almost Tyleresque because it deals with ordinariness in middle-class families, gently acknowledging their dysfunctional qualities, is Bonnie Burnard’s A Good House. Similarly it chronicles the members of a North American (Canadian) family over six decades and uses several members of the extended family to give their points of view. Thus Burnard gently encourages us to accept their flawed decency.
Burnard describes her characters as people who come to understand that life, like love, is best lived with due respect for individual strength, common gentleness, absolute loyalty, and having a good ear with which to listen and learn. She devotes her time to describing the complex emotions that revolve around their most endearing and powerful relationships, those connected to their siblings, parents, lovers and children.
As in all ‘normal’ families there is a bitter-sweetness waiting to appear when the gloss is scratched.
A good house becomes a symbol of shelter for a disparate and expanding group of people, no matter how far or for how long they’ve strayed from its initial intent. It becomes the type of shelter that a lot of us wish we had over our heads — or metaphorically waiting for us as a backstop or breathing place.
Burnard has had breast cancer and her second novel dealt with the effects upon those closely related to a victim.
And the Males!
Other perfect suggestions in this sub-genre include Kent Harufe’s trilogy about families in the small town of Holt, Colorado (Plainsong, Evensong, and Benediction) and Australian author Tim Winton’s extended family “celebration of people and places and the rhythms of their lives”, as the official book summary says about his supreme novel, Cloudstreet.
Truong is an avid reader and runs Bookworm (44 Chau Long, Ba Dinh, Hanoi). For more information on go to bookwormhanoi.com