Instead of the measured critical commentary typically found here, let’s consider this column a mash note. For the converted, the publication of a new Anne Tyler novel is like holy communion, a ritual return to the altar of the Homesick Restaurant, another opportunity to explore the muddles of the human condition in language as clear as a mountain spring.
Noah’s Compass, her 18th novel, is one of Tyler’s more deceptively rich and enigmatically titled (there is no character named Noah, and the evocation of the Bible story lasts less than a page). Set as usual in her native Baltimore, the novel concerns a fifth-grade, private-school teacher named Liam Pennywell, who has been “downsized” from his employment at the age of 60 and who subsequently suffers a traumatic injury that causes him to lose a bit of his memory.
His life had seemed pretty empty before he left the job he disliked, and now it seems emptier. His first wife committed suicide (he still appears numb to this tragedy), and his second divorced him in exasperation. His three daughters don’t know him as well as does his one sister, whom he sees maybe once per year. He has one friend but has no idea how that relationship has sustained itself. “I’m not unhappy, but I don’t see any particular reason to go on living,” admits Liam.
Not the most promising protagonist, but Tyler remains the most extraordinary chronicler of everyday wonders, the author who best understands how our flaws define us, yet how difficult it is for us to absolve others until we are able to absolve ourselves. Life never goes as planned, but the surprises it offers to those who are receptive to them can provide redemption beyond expectation.
Through some combination of initiative, fate and chance, Liam discovers in his search for his missing memory just how much he has repressed, and he finds himself open—to love and to hurt—at an age when he thought he’d left such emotions behind. “It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life,” he says.
Such a discovery doesn’t inevitably lead to a happily-ever-after conclusion. Beneath the comedy on the surface of any Tyler novel lies an undercurrent of existential melancholy. His feelings renewed, Liam sees himself “ambushed by complexities…It struck him that life in general was heartbreaking—a word he didn’t toss off lightly.”
In Tyler’s novels (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, 1982; the Pulitzer Prize–winning Breathing Lessons, 1988), to understand is to forgive. We are formed by our past but need not be imprisoned by it. Some families thrown together through happenstance can forge stronger bonds than those related by blood. Small epiphanies can awaken us to possibilities we had never anticipated. By the end of the novel, the particulars of Liam’s life really haven’t changed that much, but he is utterly transformed. And so will be the reader.