Asking a book lover to choose her book of a lifetime is a little like asking Casanova to pick his love of a lifetime; but if I have to, that book must be 'The Accidental Tourist' by Anne Tyler. A friend's mother recommended it to me back in the Eighties. We were sitting on the veranda while the slow sun set over the dark-blue North Sea and I was bemoaning the lack of "my kind of books". By this, I meant books that combined the best qualities of literary and commercial fiction the way the classics do; books where the writer's voice and view of the world delights and surprises, where the story and the characters seduce you along from page to page.
Mrs von Sydow handed me a copy of 'The Accidental Tourist' and I embarked on a lifelong love affair with the quietly stunning, quirky and oh-so humane writing of Anne Tyler. Like all Tyler's novels, 'The Accidental Tourist' combines comedy and tragedy without veering into farce or sentimentality. It's a novel that runs deep and showcases her ability to make the everyday both entirely recognisable and extraordinary.
Macon Leary is a travel writer who hates travel and the entire purpose of his guides is to make the traveller feel as if he had never left home. "Other travellers hoped to discover distinctive local wines; Macon's readers searched for pasteurized and homogenized milk." The novel starts on a sombre note. A year after their young son was killed, Macon's wife Sarah wants a divorce. But tragic is not the same as depressing, and Anne Tyler doesn't do depressing.
By chapter two I'm smiling at Macon's attempts to "systemize" his life now he was free of the woman who "stored her flatware intermingled". But when he falls and breaks his legs, he and Edward the dog are forced to move back with his three siblings who have all, one way or another, ended up back in the family home. The chapters spent in the company of the gentle, other-worldly, infuriating Leary siblings are some of my favourites. Edward, however, deals with his feelings of loss by biting strangers.
Macon calls on Muriel the dog trainer to help sort Edward out. Muriel, with her mass of dark hair, sharp face and eyes "like caraway seeds", is the devoted single mother to a small endearingly wheezy, pasty-faced son. Muriel never shuts up and doesn't know the meaning of the word "routine". Like Macon, I'm not sure that I approve of Muriel or her dog-training methods. But a relationship develops and Macon's frozen heart begins to thaw. When Sarah gets in touch and wants her husband back, he is not alone in being in two minds about what to do.
This novel, full of wisdom and writing that sneaks up on you with its brilliance, its insights, and its sheer humanity, gave me back my appetite for reading - while its author became an enduring professional role-model.
Marika Cobbold's new novel is 'Drowning Rose' (Bloomsbury)