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Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler: almost vintage Tyler

Liam Pennywell has spent most of his life dodging issues and skirting adventure when suddenly, in his sixty-first year, something happens that jolts him out of his certainty and leaves him with a frightening gap in his memory. In trying to piece together what took place on his first night in a new apartment, Liam finds instead an unusual woman with secrets of her own, and a late-flowering love that brings its own thorny problems …

On the whole I enjoyed this book. It’s vintage Tyler, for the most part, although there are one or two issues which leapfrogged me out of the story’s grip and into a brief literary wilderness (of which more later). I particularly enjoyed the first chapter which depicts the lead up to the incident that changes Liam’s life – it’s subtly written, and the end line of that first chapter is wonderfully shocking. It’s almost like a sudden slap to the face that gets your attention more than any long explanation ever could. Great stuff. I also appreciated the fact that the incident itself gets no air-time, mainly of course because Liam doesn’t remember it and besides it’s his response to his forgotten experience that counts, not the thing itself.

All this lead in brings me to the densely woven net of family relationships and burgeoning friendships experienced by Liam, a man who is ultimately essentially alone, that make up the bulk of this novel. This interplay between family life and single life is of course where Tyler excels most and it was a pleasure to immerse myself in her writing again. Nobody else depicts families and their sometimes almost invisible affections, power-plays and concerns as she does. It’s great stuff. Nor does she take her eye off the ball when it comes to revealing minor characters, such as Damian, the silent and much underrated boyfriend of Liam’s daughter Kitty:

Damian came back from his cousin’s wedding with his arm in a cast. He said there’d been a little “contretemps.” Liam was so surprised by his wording that he gave Damian a second look. Was there more to him, perhaps, than met the eye?

On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, there are points in the book where I personally felt Tyler let me down a little, where I wasn’t really expecting it. I didn’t, for example, think that Liam’s decision to find someone who could help him remember the incident in the apartment was very realistic, I found some elements of his relationship with Kitty to be overdramatised, and then later the way he meets Eunice is completely bizarre – I just didn’t see that ever happening, and it made me quite cross. I’m not sure it was in Liam’s character, or Eunice’s.

That said, once I’d accepted the presence of Eunice in Liam’s life, I really enjoyed her company. Then again, I do always have a soft spot for women who aren’t girly or flowery or remotely twee. And, like Eunice, I too have tripped over my own skirts and carry a handbag larger than the Grand Canyon so I was utterly on her side at that point.

People like Eunice just never had quite figured out how to get along in the world. They might be perfectly intelligent, but they were subject to speckles and flushes; their purses resembled wastepaper baskets; they stepped on their own skirts.

Honestly, we could be sisters, I swear it. The scene where Liam finds out Eunice’s secret is also beautifully portrayed, being both subtle and bleak. It had me shocked too, and upset on his behalf.

From that point on, I have to say the book does become more and more bleak. Which interestingly isn’t a word I usually associate with Tyler, where usually I expect to feel uplifted and invigorated in some way, though subtly. There are moments in the latter half of the novel where the difficulties and very real traumas of advancing years which is a main theme here made me stop and think, and not in a particularly happy fashion:

He remembered an art project he had read about someplace where you wrote your deepest, darkest secrets on postcards and mailed them in to be read by the public. He thought that his own postcard would say, I am not especially unhappy, but I don’t see any particular reason to go on living.

Indeed at the end, this book reminded me very much of Tom Stoppard’s play, The Dog It Was That Died, where despite all the potentially momentous things that happen in the middle, the protagonist ends up in exactly the same place he was at the start. In Stoppard’s play, the overall effect is comic; but here, partly because the decisions made and possibilities ultimately denied are entirely Liam’s, the effect is rather grim. Well-written of course, but grim. It made me feel quite empty – which is, I believe, what the author wanted me to feel, and which is therefore the mark of a good writer.

I do therefore find it interesting when the marketing quotes on my version of the book emphasise the comedy therein, whereas I actually see it as (in the literary sense of the word) a tragedy. Yes, there are comic moments, but the overriding tone is elegiac rather than witty. So an interesting addition to Anne Tyler’s list of works, but be prepared for a deeply meditative rather than an uplifting read.

Noah’s Compass, Vintage Books 2010, ISBN: 978 0 099 53958 2

[Anne always admires good relationship writing but, in her twilight years, might prefer a little less gloom.]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke lives in Surrey, UK, and writes in a variety of genres, including gay erotic romance, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, biblical fiction and the occasional chicklit novel. When not writing, she spends time in the garden attempting to differentiate between flowers and weeds, and in the allotment attempting to grow vegetables. She also loves the theatre and is a keen fan of crosswords and sudokus, as long as they're not too hard! Her websites can be found at:,, and (for fantasy fiction).

10 comments on “Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler: almost vintage Tyler

  1. ChrisCross53
    May 6, 2011

    I enjoyed the review Anne. Like you, the older I get, the less I can cope with gloom, which is what made me wary of this novel when it was first published, even though I love Anne Tyler and the way she depicts relationships and the subtle ties that hold people together. Sadly I haven’t read this one – but I will now.

  2. annebrooke
    May 6, 2011

    Thanks, Chris – would love to know what you think! But be prepared for the gloom …



  3. Moira
    May 6, 2011

    Oh dear. Intriguing though your review is Anne (as always), I don’t think I’m going to be rushing out to buy this one. ‘Bleak’ I really can do without these days. Grim I can handle, graphic I don’t mind, melancholy is fine – but bleak … Sigh. Nope.

    (Exits, stage left, in search of Wodehouse …)

  4. annebrooke
    May 6, 2011

    Thanks, Moira! Hope there’s a spare Wodehouse for me too!



  5. Jackie
    May 6, 2011

    I read this one last year & bleak is a good way to describe the feeling it left me with. Usually there’s more hope in a Tyler novel. I’ve always liked her focus on eccentrics & the awkward people in life, probably because I can relate to that. But I do give her points for following through on a story that lacks cheer, that takes a certain amount of courage. I do wonder, if it left us readers feeling down, how she made it through all the months of writing & editing that the book would’ve taken?

  6. annebrooke
    May 7, 2011

    That’s very true, Jackie – and I did wonder also if she felt more than a little empathy with Liam because of the ageing process, but then that left me feeling even bleaker!

    I hope (ha!) there’s more of a sense of hope in her next one.


  7. kirstyjane
    May 7, 2011

    I like tragedy done well, but grim is quite another word… I really enjoyed this review, however! Another Anne knockout. 🙂

  8. Nikki
    May 8, 2011

    I’ve never read Tyler before, but obviously I need to rectify that. I like the sound of Eunice. I’ll see if I can find this at the library, if not I’m sure they have plenty of other books by her. Thanks for the tip.

  9. annebrooke
    May 14, 2011

    Thanks, both! 🙂


  10. Pingback: “Noah’s Compass” by Anne Tyler | Belper Book Chat

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This entry was posted on May 6, 2011 by in Entries by Anne, Fiction: 21st Century, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , .



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