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funny, moving, thought-provoking, brilliant as always
Noah’s Compass is the eighteenth adult novel by American author, Anne Tyler. When sixty-year-old Liam Pennywell is retrenched from his job as a fifth-grade teacher, he decides to downsize his life, moving to a smaller apartment with less possessions; he even considers retiring altogether. But after going to sleep in his new bedroom, he wakens in a hospital bed with no memory of intervening events. His capable ex-wife Barbara and his three daughters (the rather bossy Xanthe, the born-again Christian Louise and seventeen-year-old Kitty) tell him to be grateful he can’t remember being mugged, can’t remember how he got his scalp wound or the bite on his hand. But the void in his recall nags at him, and in his neurologist’s waiting room he encounters Eunice, a woman whom he feels may hold the key to the recollection he seeks. And it seems that, unlike Xanthe, Louise and Kitty, who find him hopeless and obtuse and are infuriated by his policy of not arguing, Eunice looks up to him and seems to understand him. Whilst aware of her shortcomings - “plump and frizzy-haired and bespectacled, dumpily dressed, bizarrely jeweled, too young for him and too earnest” - might he, after being widowed, remarried and divorced, have finally have found someone to be happy with? And just to complicate life even further, Kitty comes to live with him for the summer vacation, something he’s not entirely sure how to cope with. And there’s Kitty’s boyfriend, Damian, who attracts the disapproval of Xanthe and Barbara. Tyler excels at making the reader really care about fairly ordinary people doing fairly ordinary things and having fairly ordinary events occur in their fairly ordinary lives. And just when the plot sounds somewhat predictable, Tyler throws in a major twist or two. Liam is a likeable character who admits “….I haven’t exactly covered myself in glory. I just….don’t seem to have the hang of things, somehow. It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.” Through Liam’s thoughts, Tyler displays some wonderful imagery: “Damian had the posture of a consumptive – narrow, curved back and buckling knees. He resembled a walking comma.” and “Nobody would mistake him for anything but a cop. His white shirt was so crisp that it hurt to look at it, and the weight of his gun and his radio and his massive black leather belt would have sunk him like a stone if he had fallen into any water.” Many of the interactions between characters are laugh-out-loud moments, but Liam provides some gems of wisdom too: “He started laughing. He was laughing out of surprise as much as amusement, because he hadn’t remembered this himself until now and yet it had come back to him in perfect detail. Where from? he wondered. And how had he ever forgotten it in the first place? The trouble with discarding bad memories was that evidently the good ones went with them.” This novel is characteristically Anne Tyler: funny, moving, thought-provoking and, as always, quite brilliant.