Book: Noah’s CompassAuthor: Anne Tyler Pages: 277 Readable Pages: 285 Sample line: “I just…don’t seem to have the hang of things, somehow. It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.”
In the opening chapter of Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass, the No. 3 novel on the bestseller list, Liam Pennywell gets conked on the head by an intruder. Liam wakes up in the hospital. He doesn’t remember a thing about the event. “A part of my life has been stolen from me,” Liam says desperately. “I don’t care if it was unpleasant; I need to know what it was.” Sounds like me every time I read a James Patterson novel.
Who will help Liam? The 60-year-old lives a ghostly life, having crept around for so long that he hardly left any prints on the grass. Liam rarely leaves his monastic Baltimore apartment, which is sans TV and computer. He was recently downsized by the private school where he teaches, the headmaster having apparently forgotten his existence. His ex-wife and three kids mostly avoid him; Liam does the same to his own father, Bard. Liam, it turns out, has removed himself from everyone and everything. He says he likes going to the movies because he finds “it restful to watch people’s conversations without being expected to join in.”
In his search for hard-drive recovery, Liam develops one connection, to Eunice, a frumpy thirtysomething. A lost soul herself, Eunice assists a billionaire who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s: she’s his “external hard drive”—a “rememberer,” in Liam’s fine phrasing. Hmm, Liam thinks, he could use a “rememberer,” too. What starts as a scheme for in-home therapy blossoms—to use a word Liam would surely recoil from—into an odd little romance.
Nothing much happens in Noah’s Compass—something I feel obligated to point out, since this column usually covers bestsellers that contain a revelation per page. The novel kind of ambles along, doing a sly impersonation of its protagonist. In fact, Noah’s Compass is a lot like Liam: a bit uptight and old-fashioned, but also smart and solid and keenly observant. Liam describes his life “drying up and hardening, like one of those mouse carcasses you find beneath a radiator.” Liam says of Eunice: “There was something of the only child in her character—an air of perennial daughterliness, an excessive concern for her parents’ good opinion of her.”
This is a slim volume for a short trip—both sides of a London-to-Berlin ticket, say. But Tyler (the author of Breathing Lessons and The Accidental Tourist) is building up to something. Not a gooey emotional crescendo, but a rather chastening lesson on engaging with life. When the events of the novel have come to a close, she takes us on a tour d’horizon of Liam’s deleted scenes, a lifetime of people he shirked. For eight pages, I found myself genuinely struck. The details were different but the notes she struck were staggeringly familiar. I went back and immediately read that section again, hence the higher number up top. That I’ll remember.
Read it? Yes.
William Boot covered the war in Ishmaelia and wrote the Lush Places column for The Daily Beast. He now reviews commercial fiction.