'Noah's Compass,' a new novel by Anne Tyler
By: Ellen Baker, Duluth News Tribune
Anne Tyler, author of such wonderful novels as “The Amateur Marriage” and
“Ladder of Years,” is one of my favorites, so I rushed right out to buy her new book, “Noah’s Compass.” Like so many of Tyler’s novels, this centers on the theme of how the everyday details of a seemingly unremarkable person’s life contain magic, mystery and even tiny
Liam Pennywell is a 61-year-old divorced father of three who, as a result
of being downsized out of his job as a fifth grade teacher, is economizing. “He plunged into it with more enthusiasm than he’d felt in years – gave up his big old-fashioned apartment within the week and signed a lease on a smaller place, a one-bedroom-plus-den in a modern complex… Of course this meant paring down his possessions, but so much the better. Simplify, simplify!”
Unfortunately, on Liam’s first night in his austere new apartment, he goes to sleep only to wake up in the hospital, his head bandaged. It’s said he was attacked by a burglar, but Liam can’t remember a single detail beyond falling asleep.
Liam’s anxiety over this lost bit of his life leads him to consult with a
neurologist. In the waiting room, he becomes fascinated with a woman who
appears to act as a “rememberer” for another patient. When the neurologist
tells Liam he’ll probably never remember the attack and that he’s fortunate, in fact, not to have lost more memories, Liam can’t accept it. Even the intermittent hovering of his self-absorbed sister, ex-wife and three daughters – all of whom are fascinating and fun characters – can’t soothe him. The attack has pushed him into the fray of his own life,
and he doesn’t know what to do.
Palpably lonely, fixated on the idea of the woman rememberer, he goes to great lengths to track her down, even though he’s aware his yearning for her makes no sense. “She wasn’t going to drop everything and become his rememberer. In any event, she couldn’t help him retrieve an experience she hadn’t been there for. And what good would it have done even if she could retrieve it?”
When Liam finally does make contact with the rememberer, Eunice, rather than helping him with his past, she turns out to propel him into a future
he hadn’t imagined. Meanwhile, his relationships with his family – especially his teenaged daughter, Kitty, and his grandson, Jonah – also develop in unexpected ways.
Because Liam is so distant from his own feelings, even admitting that “all
along, it seemed, he had experienced only the most glancing relationship with his own life,” it’s left to the reader to try to figure out the
meaning of it all, to determine the breadth and depth of the miracles
In the end, Tyler leaves the meaning of Liam’s life – and maybe, by extension, the meaning of all our own small-big lives – open to much interpretation.
This novel won’t rise to the top of my list of favorites by Tyler. It’s hard not to feel slightly bewildered and thrown off-balance by it, since Liam himself is bewildered and off-balance throughout. But it’s quintessential Anne Tyler and, consequently, a good read, giving
readers a lot to think about and book clubs much to discuss.
Ellen Baker is the author of “Keeping the House: A Novel,” winner of the Great Lakes Book Award. She lives in Northeastern Minnesota, where she is working on her second novel. Visit her website at www.ellenbakernovels.com.