Something clutches at the heart in the opening pages of Noah's Compass, the latest offering from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler. It's not just that Liam Pennywell, the protagonist, at 60 is laid off, divorced, apparently alone in the world and, within a week of being downsized, has swapped his large, old-fashioned, dignified apartment for a cinderblock box on the outskirts of Baltimore.
No; it's that none of these things seems to clutch at his heart. Next thing we know he's in a hospital bed, "fastened down like Gulliver," having been conked on the bean by an intruder his first night in his new home. The injury is to his head, but it's his psyche that's been wounded.
Liam can't remember a thing about the assault, which disturbs him greatly. His agitation is what sets the plot in motion. What the reader soon realizes, however, is that real though his anguish is, it's misplaced. "I'm missing a piece of my life," he cries, and it's true, but it's a much bigger piece than he realizes, and it will take him (though not us) the rest of the book to figure this out.
His efforts to recover his memories lead him to Eunice, the good-hearted, compellingly zaftig assistant to a local businessman whose memory is going. ("I'm his external hard drive," she explains.) In the meantime, we learn that, far from being alone, Liam has an entire constellation of family members circling in the background, not all of them alive, and some closer to the sun of his consciousness than others.
One by one they come into focus, filling in the back story of Liam's life: his mysteriously aggrieved eldest daughter, Xanthe; his breezily no-nonsense ex-wife, Barbara; his fundamentalist middle daughter Louise and her son, Liam's grandson, Jonah; and his 17-year-old youngest daughter, Kitty, who comes to look after Liam and ends up staying.
What is more basic? What more inescapable?
Liam's first wife, Millie, killed herself 32 years earlier, but, he assures Eunice, "I never think about her any more." He may not, but that he still feels about her is evident ... if only he would allow himself to acknowledge that fact. On that "if only" hangs the plot.
A grade-school teacher by profession, Liam actually took his degree in philosophy, and he prides himself on his philosophical approach to life. But because he mistakes emotional numbness for stoicism, he doesn't understand why he feels more dead than alive. "Sometimes I think my life is just ... drying up and hardening," he tells Eunice, adding helpfully, "like one of those mouse carcasses you find beneath a radiator."
It takes a crack to the head for him to make the connection, but he does, and his interest in recovering his memories of the assault fades as the enormity of the real loss confronting him sinks in. "Where's everything else I've forgotten," he wonders, "my childhood and my youth, my first marriage and my second marriage and the growing up of my daughters?"
For so seemingly uncontroversial, even mild a writer, Tyler, who won the Pulitzer in 1989 for Breathing Lessons, has attracted her share of critical slings and arrows. Praised for her wisdom, wit and compassion, she has been criticized for sentimentality; lauded for the depth of her humanity, she's been sniffed at for her narrow scope.
There's something to this: She can be sentimental, she's not especially subtle, and as for scope, choose any of her novels (there have been 18 since 1964) and "a family in Baltimore" - or better still, "family, in Baltimore" - pretty well covers the lot.
On the other hand, family, in whatever unconventional permutation you want to shape it, for most of us does cover the lot. In Noah's Compass, we are unquestionably in Tyler territory: painful, but not unbearably so; never gritty, even when violent, and yet ... this is writing inspired by passages of such divine loopiness you flip the book over, look long and deep at the author photo and suspect you've underestimated her all along.
So yes, family. What is more basic? What more inescapable? Heartening, enraging, exhausting, sustaining, they are ever with us, Tyler suggests; clearly, she would not have it otherwise. Her gift, here and in her best books, is to make us feel the same.
Kathleen Byrne, a Toronto editor and writer, frequently reviews for Globe Books.