Liam Pennywell is approaching sixty and is seemingly at loose ends. His life has been steadily downsizing. His jobs have diminished in prestige. His marriages ended and his children became increasingly baffling to him.
Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler is the story of Liam Pennywell coming to grips with his world after a life altering event. Forced into early retirement Liam moves to a smaller, more affordable apartment. His first night in his new place, he goes to bed and wakes up in hospital. He has been attacked by an intruder. Though he bears the scars, he remembers nothing of the attack. This lapse in memory has a profound impact on Liam. He befriends Eunice, a woman hired to remember for an older man with dementia, in the hopes that she will act as a rememberer for him as well.
This is a gently written, reflective novel with characters intriguing enough to also call it a page-turner. The library’s catalogue labels it as “humorous fiction”, but I wouldn’t call it laugh out loud funny. There are, rather, parts that will make you smile, for example, poor bewildered Liam trying to comprehend his teenage daughter, her boyfriend and his grandson. In fact, Liam seems bewildered by family life in general. He never quite fits in. I would go as far as saying he is oblivious.
Liam can be described as plain, unexceptional, cool, rational and not really engaged with the world. His injury is a turning point in his life and drives him into action to try and recover his lost episode. In the process he recovers his connection with this family and his life. The title Noah’s Compass refers to Noah’s Ark, which he mused to his grandson, was not equipped with sails and merely floated waiting for land to appear.
Noah’s Compass brings to mind Deaf Sentence by David Lodge. Another modestly funny novel, Deaf Sentence tells the story of Desmond Bates whose life is becoming increasingly isolated by his deafness. He watches his wife’s career blossom as his disability pushes him to the sidelines. His deafness is the cause of amusing misunderstandings one of which leads him into potential trouble with an aggressive young grad student.