July 2017 re-reading: Anne Tyler

Now for 1983, when my Books Read list has 33 entries, 25 of them fiction of one kind of another. With the non-fiction titles, I see that I was honest enough to add “(not finished)” after three of them. I did get through Edgar Johnson’s memorable biography of Dickens, though, and Condition of England by Lincoln Allison, of which I remember nothing. But I’m sticking with fiction this month and re-reading Anne Tyler.

As noted in my previous entry, I “discovered” the US novelist Anne Tyler in 1982. I’d learned of her existence via a Radio 3 interview with her in September that year under the title ‘Convincing Lies’ (this detail via the BBC’s genome project, which gives you access to all old Radio Times listings: see http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/). What kind of a writer was she? I wondered – after all, the man interviewing her was David Wheeler, a former editor of Panorama, and obviously no ordinary litterateur. I began to find the answer in Westminster Libraries’ Little Portland Street branch (have I remembered that right? – it no longer exists), from where I borrowed Searching for Caleb, still to my mind one of her best.

I read two more of Anne Tyler’s novels in 1983 – her first, If Morning Ever Comes, and the more recently published Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. My plan in July was to re-read If Morning … which AT published at the age of 22, and which I was sure was on our shelves. But it wasn’t, and neither was Dinner … Among the Tylers on our shelves, though, was her second novel, The Tin Can Tree, which – to my surprise – I don’t seem to have read before. So, breaking my own rule, that’s what I read (not re-read).

What did I think of this trip back to early Tyler? Well, it was clearly early – published over 50 years ago, when she was 24 – and maybe for that reason didn’t feel like a fully formed novel. True, it has similarities with later Tylers – odd, not-quite-functioning families, marginal characters turning out to be central, a sense of place, domestic day-to-day detail – but there seemed to be loose ends, explanations missing, odd changes in tone that I don’t recall in her later books. The later novels are almost all set in Baltimore and its suburbs (where AT has lived most of her life); but this one doesn’t stray from North Carolina, where she grew up, and is almost completely set in the fictional small town of Larksville and its surrounding tobacco fields. Just outside the town is a long “three-family house” where the central characters live: James, a local newspaper photographer, and his brother Ansel, who is an invalid (what’s wrong with him isn’t clear); the Pike family, who as the novel opens have just lost their six-year-old daughter Janie in a tractor accident; and two elderly sisters, Miss Faye and Miss Lucy. The only characters whose thoughts we are told about are James and the Pikes’ niece Joan, who is 26 and living with her aunt and uncle (are James and Joan in some sort of relationship? It seems so, but again we have to surmise …) The main thrust of the plot, such as it is, is about assorted people’s efforts to help Janie’s mother out of her grief, which has left her immobilised in her bedroom. The Pikes’ son Simon – a remarkably self-sufficient 10-year-old, of the kind that can be found elsewhere in AT novels – has a crucial role in all this.

I don’t really want to go on any more about The Tin Can Tree; summarising plots can be a boring task, and these blog entries are long enough already. But I’d just like to make a point about the way AT has been ‘marketed’ in the UK. When I first started looking for her novels in the 1980s, it seems to have been assumed that she was some kind of

Untitled‘woman’s writer’. Hence these shiny covers, which despite the quote from John Updike (lifted from his review of Searching for Caleb) have a ‘female romance’ aura. (Also, some of her early novels were read as serials on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.) Later her treatment by publishers seems to have got a little more upmarket. My UK hardback edition of A Patchwork Planet (1998), for instance, has quotes from Nick Hornby (“my favourite writer”) and Lynne Truss (“a brilliant writer of emotionally sophisticated novels”). It wasn’t that Tyler had changed; somehow the literary world had reconsidered. Virtually all her novels are now published in paperback by Vintage, so much “classier” than those old Hamlyns from the 1980s …

What else did I read in July? Well, I finished Trollope’s The Duke’s Children: not the best of his Palliser novels, but good enough. And in complete contrast, the German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days: atmospheric, and well translated by Susan Bernofsky.