Noah’s Compass, Anne Tyler

Noah’s Compass

by Anne Tyler

(London: Chatto & Windus)

ISBN 978-0-701-18423-0, hbk, 288 pp • £17.99

Anne Tyler’s eighteenth novel picks a familiar path through the scattered debris of dislocated familial relationships. Like Tyler protagonists Jeremy Paulding (Celestial Navigation, 1975), Macon Leary (The Accidental Tourist, 1985), and Ian Bedloe (Saint Maybe, 1991) before him, the strong-willed Liam Pennywell is disconnected from his emotional life and floats through each day undisturbed by the trail of hurt feelings he leaves in his wake . Sixty years old and just recently ‘let go’ from his position as a fifth grade teacher due to economic restructuring, Liam enters semi-retirement with enthusiasm: within the novel’s first few pages he downsizes to ‘a one-bedroom-plus-den’ flat in a modern, clinically-cold Baltimore apartment block, ‘paring down his possessions’ to the barest essentials so that his whole life might fit into the ‘next-smallest size U-Haul’. A dropout philosophy graduate student, Liam anticipates the ‘next stage’ of his life —‘the stage where he sat on his rocking chair and reflected on what it all meant, in the end’—with relish .

On the first night in his new apartment Liam is attacked—quite violently for a Tyler novel—and he awakens to find that he has no memory of the night’s events: ‘I felt as if I had leapt this sort of ditch. This gap of time that I had skipped completely’. This is of course classic Tyler territory, for the attack and the concomitant memory loss enable Liam to learn that he hasn’t simply ‘skipped’ over one tiny groove in the record of his life, but rather bobbed along the surface of its entirety. He comes to realise and then regret that ‘he had experienced only the most glancing relationship with his own life,’ and that, ‘he had dodged the tough issues, avoided the conflicts, gracefully skirted adventure’. A widower and divorcee, Liam has spent most of his adult life immersed in life at St. Dyfrig, caring for other people’s boys while carelessly avoiding his own three daughters. Cantankerous and dry-witted, Tyler’s third-person authorial viewpoint projects Liam’s musings in a light-hearted tone that prevents the narrative from sinking under the weight of his world-weary self-pity. With perfect comic timing, Liam delivers stinging ripostes that he never speaks aloud because ‘it was his policy not to argue’: ‘ “You’re dismissive and sarcastic and contemptuous,” Louise said. (Anger seemed to broaden her vocabulary—a trait that Liam had noticed in her mother as well)’.

Tyler is the arch-detective of the human condition, and she packs her quiet narrative with telling description: ‘Damian [Kitty’s boyfriend] had the posture of a consumptive—narrow, curved back and buckling knees. He resembled a walking comma’. Seventeen-year old Kitty moves in for the summer, bringing along lots of electronic gadgetry and taking over Liam’s bedroom with her teenage messiness to the point that ‘the bed itself was shingled with glossy magazines’. Liam’s awkward exchanges are effective at filling in the excruciating details of his failings: riding in the car with Damian he finds ‘he couldn’t think of a single thing to say to him’, and to Jonah, his grandson, he feels ‘unconnected … the fact that they were related by blood seemed too much to comprehend’.

You can read the full review in The Literateur Magazine [17 November 2009]