Monday, January 11, 2010

Noah's Compass, by Anne Tyler

Liam Pennywell, the 60-year-old protagonist of Anne Tyler's latest novel, tells his grandson Jonah that Noah did not need a sextant or compass because he wasn't trying to go anywhere, he was only trying to survive. That is essentially how Liam has lived his life: he has been married twice (his first wife committed suicide, he and the second divorced), has three daughters, and was recently fired from his long-time teaching job, but he seems unaffected. Having decided to downsize, he has just moved into a new, smaller apartment. He goes to bed early on his first night in the new apartment and wakes up in the hospital, unable to remember the attack that put him there.

Liam becomes obsessed with this memory gap and, while seeking help from a neurologist, he sees a woman assisting an older man in the waiting room. Still suffering aftereffects from his head injury, Liam thinks she is the man's "rememberer" and yearns to have her serve the same function for him. He is unusually proactive in finding a way to meet her, and they become involved. While she is not a "rememberer" in the way he hoped, by opening up his emotions, she does help him remember significant events in his earlier life that he had forgotten or repressed. Meanwhile, we see modest evolution in his relationships with his daughters and the stirrings of self=awareness. Yet, at the end of the book Liam is alone on Christmas, reading Socrates (he is also a thwarted philosopher, forced to give up writing his dissertation when his first wife died, leaving him to raise their toddler alone), so Tyler certainly does not give him an easy transformation.

Set in Baltimore, like most of Tyler's books, Noah's Compass is highly readable and the characters are well-drawn--yet we never really understand why Liam had only a "glancing relationship with" his own life. This is one of the questions a book group could discuss if they chose this book. While not Tyler's best work, Noah's Compass is worth reading and discussing.

Favorite passage:
He was familiar with those flashes of hatred. (He'd been married two times, after all.) He knew enough not to act on them.

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