Saturday, April 24, 2010

Noah's Compass - Book Review

Anne Tyler's Noah's Compass is such a subtle, low-key work that you might miss just what it is she's trying to accomplish. Uh, oh. Subtle and low key means slow-moving and boring, right? Well, there are no 'splosions to be found in this lovely book, that's true, but then there's nary a 'splosion to be found in any of Tyler's books. Besides, there's plenty of books out there with 'splosions in 'em. Don't worry. We'll get to them eventually.

For now, though, Noah's Compass offers a gentle story about 61-year old Liam Pennywell and his search for the memory he lost the night he was conked over the head by an intruder on his first night's stay at his new apartment. That event sets him off on his journey to re-evaluate his life and try to reach out once more for a chance at love. But he comes late to this realization about himself:
All along, it seemed, he had experienced only the most glancing relationship with his own life. He had dodged the tough issues, avoided the conflicts, gracefully skirted adventure.

The book's title comes from a scene between Pennywell and his grandson, who is coloring in the pictures of his Bible coloring book. In talking about the story of Noah, his grandson asks Pennywell how Noah knew where he was going. Pennywell realizes that Noah didn't know where he was going - why should he? He had nowhere else to go. All Noah had to do was stay afloat, and so had no need for a compass or sextant. (Yes, yes, I know, neither the compass nor the sextant existed in Biblical times. We're talking metaphors here, okay?) The connection of this scene to Pennywell's life is obvious but it's Pennywell's reconciliation to what he finally sees how his life has been that provides the climax to this story. Whether you find that reconciliation satisfying I'll leave to you.

This is probably a minor work of Tyler's. I'm glad I read it because I find her so rewarding but it's her other books that resonate more with me than this one. That may change over time but I still think that Tyler is our greatest living author out there writing novels about ourselves that'll stand the test of time.

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