At age 60, after being abruptly laid off from his job as a teacher, Liam Pennywell moves into a smaller apartment and decides to settle in to the final chapter of his life. As he snuggles into his bed on the night of his move, he reflects on the sameness of his upcoming routine days…and is content at the thought of those unchanging times. When he awakens, however, he is in a hospital bed. His head and hand are bandaged, and both ache. No matter how hard he tries, all he can remember is getting into bed in his new apartment and preparing to drift off to sleep.
Liam’s oldest daughter, Xanthe, informs him that he was injured while fighting off an intruder. Xanthe is militant and outspoken, claiming Liam brought it all on himself by allowing Damien, his daughter Kitty’s boyfriend, to help him move in. She insists that Damien is a drug addict who was casing Liam’s new home during the move and then returned at night to mug him. Liam does not believe Xanthe’s accusations. He does know, however, that he urgently needs to retrieve his memory of what happened to him that night even if the remembrance is unpleasant.
The fact that he cannot remember the encounter with his assailant nibbles away at him. He doesn’t even know how he acted during such a significant event, although his hand injury seems to indicate that he struggled with the intruder. Even though Liam is generally an easy-going believer in letting the past go, he cannot stop dwelling on his missing memories.
Liam’s ruminations on his attack lead him to re-evaluate his life. For example: How, after being married twice and having three daughters, has he ended up essentially alone? Why was he so passive when he was laid off from his job instead of fighting to remain employed? All at once, he feels like he has lost confidence in himself. And he continues to obsess over not remembering his assault.
Since he has a very tenuous connection with a neurosurgeon having once tutored his son, Liam manages to wheedle his way in to see the doctor. In the waiting room, he encounters an elderly wealthy man named Ishmael Cope. Cope is accompanied by a woman he has hired to be his memory; the assistant murmurs names and other hints into Cope’s ear as he needs them. Liam is fascinated by the hired memory and becomes fixated on the “rememberer,” believing that somehow he can learn something life-changing from Cope’s assistant.
As Liam’s physical injuries heal, his boredom and loneliness prey on him. He feels as if he is just waiting to die. The dullness of his life, compounded with his obsession over Cope’s memory assistant, leads him to take a risk that is out of character for Liam --- one that will change how he feels about his life forever.
Liam is an endearing character whose messiness, disorganization and lack of focus make him a uniquely heart-tugging everyman. Anne Tyler’s subtle comedic talents are in full force here, complete with hilarious details and conversations, as are her understated observations on the abilities of humans to transform their lives. Reading NOAH’S COMPASS is the very definition of pure pleasure. The only problem: Should a reader gulp down the entire story in one giddy night, or parcel it out in lovely delicate nibbles? Highest recommendation.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 24, 2011