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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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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