Saturday, May 09, 2009

Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler

Earthly Possessions is, I suppose, a kind of road novel, albeit a more gentle, less testosterone driven model than the usual. As is customary with Anne Tyler, character takes precedence over plot and this is a gentle unfolding of three lives as they approach their own particular crises. It is narrated by the main character, Charlotte, a discontented woman stuck in a small town rut. Throughout her life she has made attempts to escape, only, it seems, to be foiled by fate. Her father has a heart attack on the day she is supposed to leave home to go to school. She marries the charismatic Saul, imagining he will free her from their small-town existence, only for him to be ‘called to preach’ and setting up ministry in the local church. On the first occasion she attempts to leave him, she discovers she is pregnant. This is, you imagine, a woman destined to live a small life through lack of opportunity.

However, it gradually transpires that of all the ties that bind her to the low-key, humdrum existence she so despairs of, the greatest of all is herself. This is a woman to whom things happen, but not someone who makes things happen. The novel begins with her withdrawing money from the bank as a prelude to leaving her husband. Since we know, however, that over the years she has been a serial leaver of her husband, there is no reason to suppose this attempt would have been any more successful, but for the intervention of Jake. In a desperate attempt to obtain money in order to reach Mindy, his (under-age) pregnant girlfriend, he tries to hold up the bank, but escapes with a mere $100 and Charlotte as a hostage. Together they flee towards Florida and, finally, Charlotte has escaped.

The novel then flits backwards and forwards in alternating chapters, following Jake and Charlotte as they try to find Mindy, and detailing the moments of Charlotte’s life which led her to this moment. Gradually, the two story-lines converge, and at that moment Charlotte is finally able to make a decision for herself.

This is a finely written novel, very funny and full of poignant detail. The smallness of Charlotte’s life is beautifully drawn. In her small town they live a small life, barely venturing out of doors. After her father’s heart attack, they ‘lived in a smaller and smaller area of the house, now – shutting off floors my [her] father couldn’t climb to, rooms [they] couldn’t afford to heat.’ Counting down the days until she can leave to go to school, Charlotte feels ‘locked in a calendar; time was turning out to be the most closed-in space of all’. As it becomes increasingly obvious that she lacks the confidence to make a decision on her own, you grow fond of and irritated by her in equal measure. She is something of an unreliable narrator, and the strangeness of her situation with Jake is handled deftly: it feels at all times slightly out of kilter, disconnected, as though she doesn’t even grasp what is happening. There is a dream-like quality to these sections which is very funny but still shrewdly conveys her unhappy, confused state of mind.

Overall, this is a neatly written work. Each of the characters is in a prison of their own making, and each is coming to some form of understanding. Where, with writers like Coetzee, this could descend into a morass of lumpen symbolism, Tyler skates lightly over the material and yet still manages to leave a lingering impression. A fine work.

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