I’ve been an Anne Tyler fan for a long, long time, and I’ve read most of her seventeen novels. Some I’ve enjoyed more than others, but what I always appreciate is her incredible perceptiveness, how she unearths the tiny and apparently insignificant details that bring a character into sharp focus.
Noah’s Compass is the story of Liam Pennywell, a sixty-one year old man who has just lost his job and is not sure whether he is ready for retirement. Liam is a lonely, solitary man who thinks he is doing fine on his own. His first wife is dead; his second divorced him years ago; he has three daughters, a sister, and an elderly father, but is close to none of them.
On the first night in a new, scaled-down apartment, Liam is attacked by a would-be burgler and winds up in hospital with a head wound. At first, it bothers him terribly that he cannot remember any of the details of the assault, even though everyone assures him this is quite normal for a head injury. His troubled quest to regain the lost memory leads him into an unlikely relationship with a younger woman. This, in turn, leads to further complications which force Liam to realize that he has not just literally lost the memory of his head injury but that he has also, metaphorically, lost the memories of much of his life — he has never been, as he tells someone late in the novel, fully present in his own life.
It is too late for Liam to make amends to the people in his life that he should have loved? Is he able to emotionally connect rather than remaining isolated? In essence this is the story of a person alone who is almost forced into meaningful contact with others and changed as a result — a familiar theme for Tyler, in novels such as Digging to America, though she’s far from the only novelist to cover such territory. Indeed, though his story does not have any of the same sense of connection to larger issues of the day and his problems are very different, Liam Pennywell is in many ways a similar characdter to Duncan MacAskill of Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man.
While the story is finely crafted and well told, I don’t think I will remember Noah’s Compass as one of my favourite novels or even one of my favourite Anne Tyler novels. Though I read it quickly, easily and with interest, I always felt distanced from Liam just as he feels distanced from his own life, and I simply didn’t like him enough as a person to find myself rooting for his transformation as enthusiastically as I should.
In fact, though I would recommend it, the main effect of Noah’s Compass was to make me want to go back and reread my very favourite of Tyler’s novels, which I read many years ago and remember as having a very memorable and lovable main character, and see if it still has the same impact on me. Watch for that review coming soon!