Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler

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Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: The low-key domestic plot (newly-retired man falls in love with a younger woman) belies the important theme of coming to terms with a reduced place-in-the-world in older age. A memorable and thought-provoking read just ripe for mature reading groups to pluck.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: August 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099539582

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It's always a red-letter day to sit down to an unread Anne Tyler. This is her eighteenth published novel. For any readers not already fans of her books, this American writer observes the ordinary in order to excel at 'making the familiar, strange'.

Liam Pennywell and his family are familiar to all of us. He's a pleasant man who has just lost his job to a younger teacher. To Liam, it's the end of a career which has been disappointingly undistinguished, after the high hopes and intellectual excitement generated by his philosophy degree. He understands that society now places a low valuation on his worth and has no further use for his skills, except perhaps as a low-grade teaching assistant. In consequence, his feelings of self-worth are so low as to turn his profile invisible.

Although just of an age to take his pension, his family expect him to find another job (he has, after all, several years of economic productivity ahead of him; if he isn't working he may become a liability to them). As with many grown-up children, Xanthe, Louise and Kitty take him for granted; they certainly don't expect their father to be caught up in a destabilising life transition just when they have need of his stability for their own crises. Barbara, his ex-wife, and Julia, his sister, join the three daughters in bossing and patronising him and it has to be said that Liam makes little attempt to stand up against any of them. In a context other than the family, he might understand the conflicting feelings of dislike and affection the women engender in him (for hate and love are too strong emotions for what he now feels). But all the family-run their relationships with him as habit. As it's family, albeit a disjointed one, Liam is sidelined into acquiescence to their way of behaving towards him.

Until this summer, Liam has hung on to his rented apartment in the John Hopkins University neighbourhood of Baltimore. Now he accepts the necessity of economising, and even rather relishes the prospect of making a new home in a less salubrious area. But on his very first night in his new apartment, Liam is assaulted by an unknown intruder. When he wakes up in hospital he can remember nothing of the event, and the memory continues to elude him throughout the story.

And then, amazingly, his otherwise inexorable drift into a purposeless retirement and older age is disrupted by meeting and falling in love with a younger woman. Suddenly an opportunity for regenerated middle-age and even a new marriage presents itself. The trouble with Liam is that he needs a crash course in assertiveness to prepare himself for life-changing happiness – and this is so alien to his way of being that he is quite capable of resigning himself to his prosaic status quo without rancour or regrets.

Why Noah's compass? Well, one day when Liam is babysitting his young grandson, Jonah. They talk about the Biblical story of Noah launching the Ark and being tossed around for forty days and nights over land flooded by the sea. Jonah wonders where Noah bought the gas for the boat, and then if the Ark was a sailboat.

Liam replies: I guess he didn't need sails either, because he wasn't going anywhere.

Not going anywhere! queries the little boy in astonishment.

There was nowhere to go. He was just trying to stay afloat. He was just bobbing up and down, so he didn't need a compass, or a rudder, or a sextant …

To Liam, the unbeliever, Noah's survival is chance, but conventionally he offers hope to the little boy with the evangelical parents. This isn't just diplomacy, but exactly mirrors Liam's own attitude to life. Bobbing up and down until the floodwaters subside is an apt metaphor for many of us, including Liam.

As I've already indicated, I didn't initially find Liam Pennywell a particularly attractive or lovable hero. Paradoxically, I feel considerable sympathy for him because his ability to endure is quite heroic. I've spent quite some time since finishing the book, wondering if a life endured is the same as a life well-lived, and concluded that outcome depends on attitude. He's a character who will remain with me for a long time to come, and who can ask for more from a favourite author?

Many thanks to the publishers for sending this book.

Further reading:

If you liked this story (apart, obviously, from another Tyler) I'd like to recommend Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden, which is rather like a detective story in revealing the character of Molly Fox through the eyes of her sophisticated Dublin friends. We think you'll also like Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

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Buy Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler at


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Kerry King said:

What a lovely review! Very beautifully written.

I adore Anne Tyler… I’m putting this on my birthday list.