Noah's Compass, By Anne Tyler

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The Independent Culture

Old age is apparently more feared than terrorist attacks. But philosophical schoolteacher Liam Pennywell knows better than to submit to over-reactions something that is natural and inevitable. So when he is made to retire, he decides to downsize and move from his house into a tiny flat in another part of Baltimore.

During his first night in his new place, a burglar knocks him unconscious. When Liam wakes up in hospital, he remembers nothing of the attack, and this inability to recall it becomes an obsession. He soon takes up with a younger woman, who works for a rich, elderly industrialist as a carer and memory-prompter. Liam becomes convinced she could be a "rememberer" for him, too.

Anne Tyler has the great ability to make complex writing look easy, and the important inconsequential, so we are not frightened by the messages she is sending us about old age, violence or the break-up of families. That doesn't make her frivolous: rather, it is the gentlest stab in the heart that makes us gasp the loudest.