Monday January 25th, 2010

Steady As She Goes

Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler
Knopf, 288 pp., $25.95

Looking after his four-year-old grandson one day, Liam Pennywell explains to him that Noah didn’t need a compass because he wasn’t going anywhere; he was just trying to stay afloat. Like many of Anne Tyler’s characters, Liam—central protagonist in this, her latest novel—is also trying to stay afloat. He is 60 and has a degree in philosophy, with two marriages behind him, neither of them a success, and three daughters. He has just lost his job as a school teacher and moved into a smaller apartment.

Liam puts his new place in order, steadily, methodically, lies down on his bed, and . . . wakes up in hospital. He has no memory of what landed him there. In fact, it was an intruder, who has left him suffering from concussion and with a wound and several stitches in his hand. We soon meet Liam’s older sister, his ex-wife, all three of his daughters in turn, and his grandson. Liam continues to worry that he can’t remember anything about the break-in at his apartment or the fight that ensued and led to his injuries.

Noah’s Compass is standard Tyler territory, a story of ordinary lives. The man at the center of it is characteristically “awkward” in his familial situation, his relations with those several women marked by the regular misunderstandings and episodes of being at cross purposes, the small opaque moments that accumulate between people. Tyler’s ordinary lives are never dull, however, and this is because insights about human character abound in her books, and because of her humane psychological realism, her sympathy and often affection for the people she creates, her gift for everyday conversation. These qualities are on display once again.

And, as with several of Tyler’s earlier books, the plot of Noah’s Compass delivers a sharp surprise. Skillfully set up so that a first-time reader doesn’t see it coming, it shifts the assumptions that have been at work to that point, creating a tension that isn’t resolved till the final pages. Ordinary lives these may be, but ordinary lives, too, have their dramas.

Liam engineers an encounter with a woman he just happened to come across in a doctor’s waiting room; he hopes she may be able to help him recover his memory of the incident that put him in hospital. Eunice Dunstead is much younger than he is and she has awkwardness of her own—in how she looks and dresses and behaves. A romance blossoms between the two of them, witnessed on and off by the women in his family, especially his youngest daughter, Kitty. Living with him for a period, it is Kitty who first alerts Liam to the fact that Eunice has “a huge crush” on him. This Eunice does, and things develop from there; except that Kitty and her boyfriend are often in the way, and Eunice’s own family circumstances as she describes them to Liam—back living with her parents (her state striking him as one of “perennial daughterliness”) and helping out after her father has had a stroke—also make things difficult.

Yet, these circumstances notwithstanding, Liam comes to recognize in due course that it was, for him, love at first sight and that Eunice has rescued him: not by helping him remember what he thought he needed to, but by enabling him to see that it doesn’t matter. Eunice has given him a last chance at love. But then that plot surprise yields a run-in of some uncertainty, the general shape of which must not be described here, no more than the way in which it is finally resolved. The novel could have had a different outcome, and this particular reader was hoping it would. But in fiction, as in life, things don’t always turn out as you expect, and there are circumstances from Liam’s childhood, still acting on him from afar so to say, that stand in the way of the choice he needs to make but doesn’t.

One or two other reviewers of Noah’s Compass have expressed some disappointment with it on account of the very familiarity, for anyone who knows Anne Tyler’s work, of the emotional terrain. The familiarity of it cannot be disputed, but it is—for me, anyway—one which is entirely benign and undisappointing. There are few writers who do so well what Tyler has been doing now with consummate skill for more than four decades. Liam Pennywell may be recognizably one of hers; but he is uniquely himself nonetheless, not quite like any of her other characters. Tyler has the feel of 60, and the view backwards from there: the intricacy of a man’s memories and regrets, of his efforts to behave well, his hopes and mistakes and compromises. As long as she can go on doing it at this level, she will continue to hold an enthusiastic readership.

Norman Geras is Professor Emeritus in Politics at the University of Manchester. He blogs at normblog.

Mentioned in this review:

Noah’s Compass