by Anne Tyler
Granta 118: Exit Strategies
(ISBN 978-1-90588-155-0)

So I am lagging behind a little bit here, I received this issue in early February, but the epic journal of Rober F. Scott’s journey to the pole has kept me well distracted until a couple of weeks ago. As soon as I’d recovered from the emotional state of shock that Scott’s desperate last journal entries and letters left me wallowing in, I opened Granta 118: Exit Strategies. I am now reading the 11th themed piece from this quarter’s edition; “The Beginner’s Goodbye”.

I gather Anne Tyler is a name that will already be known to most, and should probably be know to me – her 11th novel; Breathing Lessons, won her the 1989 Pulitzer Prize, just one of several accolades. This short piece is an extract from her most recent novel of the same name.

Immediately, in the first paragraph, Tyler accomplishes something special, introducing the sister with a painfully unkind but wholly sympathetic description, an attitude that stinks of oxymoron but captures sibling affection perfectly and, most skillfully;  subtly. The same description conjured surreal imaginations of “elbows jutt[ing] like coat-hangers” that had me smiling from the start.

It is nothing specific that makes this story shine; it is not any specific thing, but in fact the whole combination of specifics. A whole compendium of particulars, details and characteristics make this story a pleasure; drop any of these facets and the story will maintain, and it will even be very good, but the intricate combination of all of them; the stutter, the fallen tree, the neighbourhood characters and their casseroles, the sister, the cane; these things make it a brilliantly shining story, not just another good story.

Tyler’s perceptive humour lets her write about death without bringing the reader down – keeping them drawn in so that they can appreciate the sensitive observations of the central character’s feelings. Tyler made it easier for me to relate to the character’s feelings by bestowing Aaron with traits that I personally recognise in myself to some extent, traits that raise the corners of your mouth, traits that are never as cheap as a comedian’s poor attempt to relate by spouting clichéd observations.

Despite the humour (and sometimes because of), it does all feel very personal – there are emotions in writing that I’d be scared to admit to myself that I feel, but feelings that keep you nodding along in agreement. But before I ever felt any discomfort, I found myself chuckling away again.

To me, this piece stood out for Tyler’s candid descriptions of her characters. It is the unnervingly honest descriptions that make you happy to keep reading, but also happy that she will never describe you, because you know she’ll get it just right, and you wouldn’t be flattered.

Now the part that I can see being the downfall of this blog – you see, I have yet to read a book I have not enjoyed or would not recommend – but, this time, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed either.


Nick x