Noah's Compass, By Anne Tyler

A blow to the head and a new lease on life
Click to follow

The trials of age-related memory loss are everywhere in current fiction, but Anne Tyler prefers the amnesic effects of an old-fashioned blow to the head. The hero her 18th novel, retired teacher, Liam Pennywell, has just moved into a new apartment when he's attacked by a burgler. 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. Memories of past relationships trickle back, and Liam starts to feel less like a visitor in his life.

The residents of Tyler's Baltimore may be reclusive, but are never alone. On his return, Liam's barely lived-in apartment hums with unsolicited activity. His sister arrives bearing beef stew – although he doesn't eat red meat. Ex-wife Barbara drops by for a cursory clean-up, and his three daughters and four-year old grandson, Jonah, soon fill his flimsy rental with their minature electronic gizmos and familial complaints. Liam is torn between both wanting to belong to this dissatisfied female clan – forever mad with him in ways he can't quite compute - and running for the hills.

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, more comic 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 gathers 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, seeing him through the choppier moments of his romance with Eunice.

This may be one of Tyler's more muted novels – it feels like a limbering-up exercise between more highly textured works – but its seemingly casual lines reverberate long after the first read through. It's a comforting and cadenced testament to the tiresome human pastime of keeping afloat.

Comments