“Noah’s Compass” by Anne Tyler

noahscompassWikipedia informs us that this is the author’s 18th novel and one in which she treads familiar territory by following the life of an inconspicuous man who has never realised his full potential.

The story is based around a solitary 60-year-old man named Liam Pennywell, who is trying to come to terms with his own life. On the surface, Liam has an ordered, decent and quiet life. Once widowed and once divorced, with three grown-up daughters, he has just been dismissed from his teaching job and has used this as a stimulus to downsize to a smaller apartment, fondly imagining himself spending the months ahead quietly reading philosophy in his rocking chair.

Such plans however are immediately derailed. Liam is the victim of an assault which he can’t remember due to a bang on the head. In searching for a way to recover his memory, he meets a younger woman with whom he starts an awkward relationship. At the same time, Liam’s 17-year-old daughter has moved in with him, partly to give herself more freedom but partly also to keep an eye on him. As the book moves towards its resolution, Liam has to make some decisions about how he really wants to spend his last years, including whether to continue with his new relationship. He also improves his relationship with his daughters and finds a new and unexpected closeness with his grandson.

We read this in July 2014. The ten readers who attended our meeting had generally enjoyed the book, whether mildly or more strongly speaking in its favour. Despite the lack of any particular disagreement, we had an interesting and surprisingly long discussion, due perhaps to the strength of feeling about some aspects.

We felt that the novel was about everyday, normal people in ordinary situations. Whilst some of us felt that this made the book bland and essentially pointless, others felt that was its great strength.

Cons: not very inspiring, lacklustre, nothing special, bland, ultimately depressing, essentially pointless.

Pros: well-written, easy to read, enjoyable, plenty of metaphors and imagery, subtly written but with a lot of meaning under the surface, easy to identify with, so well written you almost don’t notice the writing, you become absorbed in the characters & situations, gentle and subtle, engaging, thought-provoking, elegantly written.

Individual scores ranged from 5 to 8, giving an average of 6.5 (based on 11 readers, including one email vote).

Plenty of others have also reviewed the book. Bloggers include Vulpes Libris, who enjoyed much of the book but found it increasingly gloomy towards the end: “deeply meditative” rather than uplifting. Compulsive Overreader loves Anne Tyler but found themselves too distanced from the main character to care overmuch for him.

A very sympathetic review comes from the Observer’s Elizabeth Day, who admires the author’s unassuming prose and attention to the mundane.  The review concludes:

“Noah’s Compass is a beautifully subtle book, an elegant contemplation of what it means to be happy and the consequences of a defensive withdrawal from other people. Life, Tyler seems say, is at its best when we let it be messy and unstructured; when, like Jonah, we allow ourselves to colour outside the lines.”

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