Anne Tyler Noah's Compass
Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler
The Review, Noah's Compass
In Anne Tyler's previous books, going back as far as The Accidental Tourist, her great novel that was made into a movie with William Hurt, Kathleen Turner and Geena Davis, a consistent theme has been the effects on a life changed by unplanned or unexpected events. Noah's Compass is not an exception.
In St. Maybe, a car wreck inspires a lifetime of introspection and responsibility. In Ladder of Years, a mother leaves home one day without a word and keeps walking until establishing wholly different life in another town.
Tyler writes about the well-worn grooves that bracket habitual, unrealized lives and lets her quirky heroes be bumped out of them to see what happens.
In an old interview, Tyler talked about how she created stories. A critical activity was living with the characters in her head for an extended period, hearing them talk and imagining interactions. If she didn't come to genuinely like a fictional character, she either didn't write the story or left him or her out. The result is a series of original stories in which exceptional lives are played out in ways that appear ordinary. Tyler's books are unsurprisingly lacking in bad guys or gals. She seems to see a rich universe underneath common experiences that is populated in just that way.
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The imperfect hero Anne Tyler's Noah's Compass is Liam Pennywell, a teacher who, at sixty has lost his most recent job in a career that has gone through a long downward trend. He is contemplating whether to pursue a new position of simply slip into that final vocational groove of retirement.
Liam has downsized already to an apartment outside his hometown of Baltimore, in a complex across from a strip mall, a move which only he seems not to see as a sort of resignation from active participation in life.
As he becomes lost in contemplation without being motivated by anything he cares enough about, fate steps in, as it often does in Tyler's stories and, perhaps, in real life. He falls soundly asleep on his first night in this new place and wakes up in a hospital with his head swathed in bandages.
Liam is quickly seized by a need to recover the details of the gap in his memory that began when he dozed off and ended when he woke up in bed with an IV, surrounded by blinking monitors.
As visitors, his ex-wife and daughters, drop in to visit, estranged relationships begin building new connections, but he finds anything beyond his obsession with his missing time a distraction.
It boggles him even more that no one seems to know much what actually happened to him. The emergency workers and police simply responded to a call and found the aftermath of what seemed to be a break-in, made easy by an unlocked patio door, and a violent assault.
At first, there are no suspects, and when one is indicated later, true to Anne Tyler's style, he appears only as a third party being defended by his mother.
Noah's Compass is a sketchy biography drawn out of Liam's interactions with others, mostly his family, but also a couple of friends. He is revealed as a man whose life has happened largely to him. Because he is so reactive, he has consistently failed to positively influence others and, more to the point, has misinterpreted his influence, passive though it may be, on them.
A significant relationship develops with a woman who turns out to have deceived him. He is appalled, even though he has deceived her as well in every aspect of their friendship, starting from his initial motive for meeting–which was an effort to enlist her as his official rememberer, someone who could help him recall the gaps in his life.
Anne Tyler has become so gifted in her years of writing as well as with her subtle observations about people that simple objects in her stories, the placement of a chair, for instance, can tell a story of its own. The slightest unease in a conversation ripples tension across established story lines.
If you love great writing, these are worth the cost of the book by themselves.
The resolution of this story is satisfying. Tyler has never been much for dramatic incidents. She doesn't need them as she delicately weaves lives to reveal insights with compassion.
In the end, a reader may be left feeling that he or she has been eavesdropping or, better yet, an invisible observer, blessed with a chance to understand what makes others really tick.
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