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Posts Tagged ‘Anne Tyler’

The clock winder is the second Anne Tyler novel I’ve read for Liz’s read-a-long – I’m dipping in and out where I can. Anne Tyler is a consistently good writer; her characters emerge so realistically that the reader develops a relationship with them almost instantly. Despite that, there was something about this novel that slightly underwhelmed me – or perhaps I was affected by the rather melancholy tone that pervades the narrative. Either way, while I didn’t dislike the book, I wasn’t as enthusiastic about it as I was about If Morning Ever Comes back in January and felt and still feel I should have liked it much more. Looking back at this novel from a distance of two or three weeks, I realise that again it is a book that has really stayed with me. One thing I really did like particularly about the novel was the sense of time passing, lives shifting and changing. The story takes place over the course of a decade, chapter one taking place in 1960 and the final chapter in 1970.

This was I believe the first of Tyler’s novels to take place in Baltimore. Here, Mrs Pamela Emerson is living alone in her large family home surrounded by the clocks her husband used to wind. Newly widowed, and a little bit all at sea. One difficult morning, Mrs Emerson fires the handyman who has been with her for years, and almost on a whim hires passing stranger Elizabeth Abbot – who seeing her struggling to move some porch furniture stops and offers to help.

“From the day that Elizabeth first climbed those porch steps, a born fumbler and crasher and dropper of precious objects, she had possessed miraculous repairing powers; and Mrs Emerson (who had maybe never broken a thing in her life, for all Elizabeth knew) had obligingly presented her with a faster and faster stream of disasters in need of her attention.”

Elizabeth had been on her way to a job interview – a job she didn’t think she wanted anyway. Initially, Mrs Emerson is quite keen to employ Elizabeth as some sort of indoor maid but Elizabeth has no interest in such a role – preferring to be busy outside the house where she will be left to herself a bit more. Mrs Emerson gives in and employs Elizabeth as her new ‘handyman’ everyone delights in calling Elizabeth the ‘handyman’ seeing it as some huge joke. Elizabeth finds herself to be surprisingly practical and capable, and Mrs Emerson come to lean on her more and more. Elizabeth enjoys this new capability she sees in herself – perhaps unaware of how much she is becoming relied upon.

Mrs Emerson although living alone, has quite a brood of adult children. Two of her sons, are particularly frequent visitors in the early part of the novel. Elizabeth is drawn more and more – almost against her will into the everyday little domestic dramas of family life. There is for instance an amusing collusion over a turkey. In time, Elizabeth begins to grow closer to two of Mrs Emerson’s sons, Matthew, and Timothy. We sense the rivalry here may not end well. Anne Tyler’s drama does tend to be of the quieter and more domestic in nature, after all it is so often the small things that loom large in the lives of ordinary people. However, a terrible, shocking incident does occur within the family – one which Elizabeth is very much caught up in.

In the midst of a tragedy, the whole family gathers – but once the dust has settled a little, Elizbeth takes her chance to leave. Heading home to North Carolina and her religious family. Here she gets a job taking care of an elderly, frail man. Elizabeth finds she is good at caring for someone, soon she is being relied upon here too. Soon it is Elizabeth that old Mr Cunningham calls out for.

“Maybe she was the worst thing in the world for him. When she read aloud so patiently, and pulled his mind back to the checkers, and fought so hard against his invisible, grinning, white-haired enemy in the corner, it was all because of that worry. She was fighting for herself as well – for her picture of herself as someone who was being of use, and who would never cause an old man harm.”

Elizabeth’s absence from the Emmerson household is keenly felt and some members of the Emmerson clan seek to get her to return. During this period, the story moves forward in the letters various characters send to Elizabeth, and she writes in return. When Mrs Emmerson falls ill, it seems the time may finally have come for Elizabeth to return.

“Pianists, Matthew thought, are the ones that get arthritis, and artists go blind and composers go deaf. And his mother, who pulled all the family strings by words alone, was reduced to stammering and to letting others finish her sentences.”

What awaits Elizabeth in Baltimore and in those relationships she  built up a few years earlier remains to be seen.

As ever Anny Tyler’s world is one that is easy to slip into, her characters are so well drawn. The Emmerson household may not be one I would have wanted to spend time in myself – but I certainly felt that I ended up knowing them all quite well.

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Hopefully, the Anne Tyler fans among you will have spotted Liz’s brilliant yearlong chronological read of all of Anne Tyler’s novels. I have probably read about half her novels – and none of them for years so I am planning on joining in with a few reads over the course of 2021 although I cannot commit to all of them or even to every month. If Morning Ever Comes was Anne Tyler’s debut novel and is one of just a few of her books I believe not to be set in the Baltimore area. Instead, we are in North Carolina – and briefly New York – having read this right after finishing Where the Crawdads Sing it seems I just cannot get away from North Carolina.

I have read online that Anne Tyler has tried to distance herself from this novel – which I think is a shame. While it may not be her greatest work, it was her debut after all, it is a really good novel I think. I certainly found it to be very enjoyable. She portrays a family well – which is something I associate Anne Tyler with doing generally, the atmosphere of this small community in the 1960s is also well presented, it is a world that has changed little over the generations a world people leave and return to almost as if they didn’t quite mean to.

“Seems like you are always loving the people that fly away from you, Ben Joe, and flying away from the people that love you.

The novel concerns Ben Joe Hawks, a young man who has left North Carolina and his large female dominated family to attend college in New York. Having arrived in August, by November the reality of a New York winter has set in, he is anxious about his family, homesick and not really enjoying or fully embracing the experience of college.

“…he didn’t like Columbia. On campus the wind up from the river cut clean through him no matter what he wore, and his classmates were all quick and sleek and left him nothing to say to them. They looked like the men who modelled Italian wool jackets in men’s magazines; he plodded along beside them, thin and shivering, and tried to think about warm things. Nor did he like law; it was all memory work.”

Hiding away in the apartment he shares, reading mystery novels and trying to keep warm it feels as if Ben Joe is just looking for an excuse to go home. It soon comes, in the shape of news from home. One of his sisters, Joanne has returned abruptly after seven years away, apparently having left her husband and with her young child in tow. Ben Joe wastes little time and is soon on a train heading home to Sandhill, North Carolina and his mother and sisters.

“When he was settled back in his seat, Ben Joe leaned his head against the windowpane and closed his eyes, trying to ignore the vibration of the pane against his skin. He wished he knew what state they were passing through. The last of New Jersey, maybe. He felt unsure of his age; in New York he was small and free and too young, and in Sandhill he was old and tied down and enormous, but what age was he here?”

So, Ben Joe arrives home, he is the only boy in a family of six sisters, then there is his mother and her mother-in-law Gram. Ben Joe seeks to be reassured about objects he left behind, that the financial arrangements he left one sister in charge of, are working out alright. Ben Joe is a little awkward – especially with women, he needs reassurance that things are ok, that everything is as it was, that those things which need to be organised have been. He feels a responsibility to his family and his ties to them are strong.

The family dynamic is particularly well portrayed. Ben Joes mother comes across quite coldly she seems held at a distance and we never really get to know her well. Gram is fabulous character, she and her daughter-in-law locked in a small, years old feud. Ben Joe is almost shy of Joanne after all the time she has been away, surprised by his little niece and her shock of red hair. Ben Joe is quite conservative, easily worried or shocked, he starts to question the behaviour of this married sister when she starts going out in the evening.

Within this family the past is everywhere. In time we hear about Ben Joe’s father – and how he died and what had led up to that. The anger and hurt surrounding these events still linger. On the train from New York Ben Joe had met an old man heading back to Sandhill after many years away, he was a childhood friend of his grandmother’s and the two decide to visit him in the care home he has come to live in. A girl Ben Joe dated in high school has also returned after a few years living away, he decides to pay her a visit too.

Soon it’s time for Ben Joe to return to New York, to take up his studies again and leave his mother and his sisters again. In the time he is at home Ben Joe seeks to reconcile his past with his present – and by the time he leaves for New York there is just the merest suggestion of what the future might hold for this young man.

“…all this still, unchanging world of women – would stay the same while he rushed on through darkness across the garishly lit industrial plains of New Jersey and into the early-morning stillness of New York. He leaned forward, resting his chin on his hand, and stared at the floor. “Every place I go,” he said, “I miss another place.”

Reading this novel after such a long break from Anne Tyler has certainly whetted my appetite for more. I love her quirky characters and her subtlety, her quiet storytelling. If Morning Ever Comes is even more impressive when we consider she was just twenty-two when she wrote it.

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