Noah’s Compass, by Anne Tyler
This is Anne Tyler’s seventeenth novel and will be welcomed by her many fans. It will also be familiar, even a little too familiar, to be judged on its own. There is the same Baltimore setting, the same domestic reassurance, the same blameless clueless protagonist, and the same invasive presence of over-zealous women. All these people are essentially virtuous, even at their most tiresome. One might say that Tyler’s style is virtuous: sunny, uninflected, and at ease with what she has to tell. Even the reader feels virtuous, perhaps beguiled by her characters into an assumption that nothing will shock or disturb. Thus a most agreeable alliance is once more sealed between writer and reader.
Liam Pennywell, at 60, has been encouraged to retire from his teaching job. He is not unduly disturbed by this, makes sensible arrangements, gets rid of most of his possessions, and moves into a small rented apartment. So far, so good. Then one night he sinks thankfully into bed, and wakes up in hospital, with no memory of what has happened to him or how he got there.
His recovery is without incident but he is troubled by the gap in his memory, and it is this gap that powers the rest of the novel. For another writer this might be a blueprint for tragedy, but Liam is made of more amiable stuff. One day in his doctor’s waiting room he is aware of a man much older than himself having his memory discreetly jogged by a woman who appears to be his assistant. Without weighing the consequences he makes it his business to annexe her in the hope of receiving the same service. He learns that the elderly man is president of a huge corporation and that he relies on his assistant to guide him through meetings.
Though without memory, Liam is not devoid of resources. He concocts an elaborate scenario to engage the woman — Eunice — into his employ. It will be a work of collaboration, he thinks, under the pretext of preparing a job application in the elderly man’s business. For a time they play along with fictitious aspects of his invented history. He sees someone whose willingness in this enterprise disarms him, as does her untidy appearance and anxious demeanour. What she sees is somewhat different: a man once widowed, once divorced, with three daughters and a grandson, apparently financially secure. In other hands this could presage lurid developments, but in the world of the present novel safety is maintained and there is no loss that cannot be made good.
Of course he falls in love with Eunice, but the implications here are elided. Their meetings are frequently interrupted by his younger daughter, Kitty, by his middle daughter, Louise, who is an evangelical Christian, and by Eunice herself whose movements are unpredictable. Revelation comes abruptly. This is the least convincing part of the novel, but it has the effect of stimulating Liam into some sort of reminiscence. Here the sweetness becomes a little bitter, since reminiscence means not recovery of memory but regret for an unfulfilled life. The slightly more realistic tone is a welcome corrective to a narrative that threatens to become mired in its own harmlessness.
The style cannot be faulted: it is as smooth as ever, but the structure is less assured. Some sort of resolution is affected, not without difficulty. Liam finds a job supervising a pre-school class of three- and four-year olds, whose company he finds entirely satisfactory. (In the real world this might be questioned.) Ideal holiday reading, then, that evades all the real issues, but at some cost. The absence of irony is disconcerting, almost shocking. Yet there remains enough evidence of good faith on the part of the writer to call forth a similar response in the reader.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 5, 2009Tags: Fiction