“Noah’s Compass” by Anne Tyler: complex novel about simplifying your life

Noahs compassOn the surface this is a slight tale about a man in his sixties who is trying to simplify his life. The characters are ordinary people and nothing much happens except the everyday things that all of us live through.

But Anne Tyler’s gift is to make us look again at all those things that we take for granted and see them differently. In this case, she shows us that passivity may not be a virtue, that life is what you remember and that memories are made and preserved by the people who you are connected to.

Liam Pennywell is sixty.one and adrift in his own life. Liam trained in philosophy, taught history, is once widowed, once divorced and has three daughters but he has somehow contrived barely to experience his own life.

He turns the loss of his job as an opportunity to downsize his life. He seems at peace with the passive path he has chosen. Then something is stolen from him: a few hours of his memory, the result of a concussion suffered in an attack he cannot recall.

Liam’s efforts to retrieve his memory lead him into a situation in which he finally understands that the most important thing he has forgotten is the impact that his first wife’s suicide had on him. He is forced to confront that even he is connected to others and that his choices have consequences and that he must choose how he will live.

The humanity and compassion in this most unromantic of books matches Tyler’s earlier works and that alone would be enough to make this book memorable but what captured my heart was the quiet grace of Tyler’s language and the subtle skill of her unobtrusive storytelling.

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