In Tyler’s novels (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, 1982; the Pulitzer Prize–winning Breathing Lessons, 1988), to...

NOAH’S COMPASS

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.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-307-27240-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2009

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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