70-year-old Pulitzer winner's honest message

Everyday conversations draw in Nicky Pellegrino.

Anne Tyler has a skill in being able to write brilliantly of ordinary life. Photo / Supplied
Anne Tyler has a skill in being able to write brilliantly of ordinary life. Photo / Supplied

A novel with a message at its core, The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus, $34.99) is both a study of grief and a story about a man discovering the truth about himself and the woman he was married to.

Oh, and it's a wee gem.

Famously reclusive, Tyler is a 70-year-old Pulitzer prize-winner.

Since this is her 19th novel, I can't imagine why it's taken me so long to discover her.

This book is so gently melancholic and quirkily humorous, her writing so honest and clear it made me want to start stocking up on her backlist.

When his wife, Dorothy, comes back from the dead, Aaron Woolcott is intrigued by the reactions of people they meet.

Some ignore her completely, others pretend not to recognise either one of them.

Killed when an oak tree fell on their sunporch and crushed her, Dorothy was a fairly forbidding woman in life - plain and rather serious, devoted to her work, not especially warm even to her husband. Nevertheless, her death devastates him.

As neighbours bombard Aaron with casseroles and his bossy sister, Nandina, fusses over him, he insists on getting on with life, stoically living in his ruined home and going to work each day at the family publishing company where he edits vanity publications and a successful beginner's guide series.

Emotionally repressed and middle-class, Aaron is by all accounts a typical Tyler hero.

Afflicted with a disability - his right arm and leg are paralysed and he must walk with a cane - he has spent his life refusing to be taken care of.

Uber-pragmatic Dorothy seemed the perfect wife. But as he walks and talks with her ghost, the cracks that had always been in their relationship seem much more obvious. Gradually, Aaron comes to understand that, while they loved each other, they were unhappy together.

This isn't really a ghost story.

It's left wide open whether Dorothy really has come back from the dead to walk round town beside Aaron or if, in his grief, he imagines she's there.

What Tyler has done is capture that sense that the person lost cannot possibly be gone completely and satisfy the yearning to talk to them again and say all that was left unsaid.

Her skill is to write brilliantly of ordinary life.

As Aaron grieves and tries to get on with rebuilding his house, nothing especially dramatic happens.

Tyler's writing has been called homely and I can see why.

And yet it's the humdrum of the quotidian that makes her work so truthful and heartbreaking.

To be honest, I wasn't sold on the ending - it seemed too neat.

But, otherwise, this is a wise and wonderful novel.

It's fewer than 200 pages long but there are plenty of other writers who might use twice as much paper and as many words, and still manage to say only half as much as Tyler does.

- Herald on Sunday

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