Noah's Compass, By Anne Tyler

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The Independent Culture

Age-related memory loss may be the malady of the moment, but in her 18th novel, Anne Tyler prefers to investigate the amnesic effects of a simple blow to the head. Recently retired classics teacher, Liam Pennywell, has just moved into a new low budget apartment when he's attacked by a nocturnal intruder. Waking up in hospital he has no recall of what happened or how he "comported" himself during those missing hours.

Now in his sixties and alert to signs of decrepitude, Liam is anxious to fix this "hole in his mind". It's while visiting a local neurologist that he meets Eunice, a hired "rememberer" to a doddery billionaire. Despite her Plain Jane appearance – oversized spectacles, escaping bra-straps and orthopaedic shoes – the young woman strikes an unexpected chord with Liam. Memories of past relationships and love affairs trickle back, and he starts to feel less like a visitor in his own life.

The residents of Tyler's Baltimore may be reclusive, but are in fact rarely left alone. On his return, Liam's barely lived-in apartment hums with unsolicited activity. His sister arrives bearing beef stew – forgetting the fact that he doesn't eat red meat – while ex-wife, Barbara, drops by for a cursory clean-up. Soon his three grown-up daughters and four-year-old grandson, Jonah, fill his flimsy rental with their minature electronic gizmos and familial complaints.

Like her near-contemporaries Alice Munro and Carol Shields, Tyler has always been drawn to life's unheroic survivors. Compared to her Canadian cousins, however, there's a sunnier, sillier aspect to Tyler's work. Seeing his only grandson perched on a car booster seat, Liam is uncharitably reminded of a "docile blond puppet"; while Eunice - whose name Liam vaguely associates with urine – is subject to a barrage of neuroses, including a morbid fear of springing up mid-concert to accompany the soloist.

Unlike Tyler's expressive, emoting female leads, her male characters can be unforthcoming to the point of curmudgeonliness. Thanks to Liam– a self-confessed "puddle" of a man – an energy-sapping haze starts to gather over the narrative. At one point Liam tells his grandson – the child of born-again Christians – that Noah didn't need a compass because he "wasn't going anywhere... There was nowhere to go". It's a sad-sack fatalism that fills Liam with unexpected cheer, and helps see him through the choppier moments.

This may be one of Tyler's more muted novels, but its seemingly casual lines reverberate long after the book has been put aside. A bouyant and cadenced testament to the exhausting human business of keeping afloat.

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