Ideal for beginners

The Beginner’s Goodbye

Anne Tyler

Chatto & Windus £12.99

Review: Liam Heylin

A mannered and unnecessary literary device is used to frame this novel from Anne Tyler but this cannot prevent her brilliantly observed characters coming fully to life in a funny, gently moving and insightful book.

An oak tree falls on Aaron’s home, killing his wife Dorothy. As well as mourning the loss, Aaron also has something else to contend with — Dorothy returns from time to time to walk and talk with her husband.

The device is not overplayed. At times it is amusing but more often it is a little too coy and quirky. Funnily enough, it is when Tyler drops the convention of Dorothy appearing to her husband that the book becomes another very rewarding Tyler tale.

She is so good at the small stuff. For instance, Aaron has to get contractors in to re-build his house and is reluctant to go home when they’re there. One evening after a few weeks, he visits and this is how Tyler catches the moment:

“The detritus of the workmen’s daily lives — their drink cups and crumpled drop cloths and jar lids full of cigarette stubs — made the house feel populated, even though it was empty. I would have to stand still a moment, regaining my sense of solitude.”

The fact that Aaron, our fond, timid and somewhat cranky narrator (he often seems much older than 35) feels unable or unwilling to return home for several weeks is to the reader’s great reward as he moves in with his bossy, elder sister, Nandina. This yields some memorable moments of beautifully observed suburban, domestic angst, played out under a cloak of civility.

His sister is still serving up the family breakfast they had as kids and getting on his case about getting his life back on track. Tyler writes, “She gave me an ultra-patient look, an ‘I know you, buster’ look. I was not a fan of that look … ”

While this relationship is so well written it becomes a warm-up act for the back-story of how Dorothy and Aaron met and married.

The book’s strongest suit is the characters. They are likable people but they are all quite finicky, marshalling their careers pretty well but being out of step socially. While Tyler isn’t hard on them, she is unflinching. There’s quite a punch when the narrator calmly says, “Then why was our marriage so unhappy? Because it was unhappy. I will say that now. Or it was difficult at least. Out of sync. Uncoordinated. It seemed we just never quite got the hang of being a couple the way other people did. We should have taken lessons or something, that’s what I tell myself.”

With so many Tyler novels to choose from this new one would be a good place to begin.

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