Marika Cobbold was born in Sweden into a family of journalists and newspaper publishers. She moved to England when she was nineteen and has lived here ever since. Her most recent novel is Drowning Rose. Her first book, Guppies For Tea, was shortlisted for the Sunday Express Book of the Year. Marika's other novels are A Rival Creation, The Purveyor of Enchantment, Frozen Music and Shooting Butterflies. She lives in North London with whichever members of her family happen to be around. Below she discusses Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist.
Marika Cobbold on The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler came into my life at a time when my love affair with novels had reached a depressing low. You know how it is? You still have the memory of passion but when faced with the object of your waning desire, try as you might, you simply can't re-create those early days of heady bliss.
Like most, if not all, writers I was a reader first. In fact I did little else but read from about the age of four to twenty-four. I was never bored or lonely and if, when a teenager, I skipped school, it was to finish the book I'd been reading most of the night. To get my hands on a book by a favourite author was about as good as it got as far as I was concerned, although I liked a mug of tea with my reading rather than the wrinkled apple favoured by that arch bookworm, Jo in Little Women.
And then, in my early twenties, something happened. Or rather didn't happen. I started novel after novel but that old magic just would not come along. The joy had gone out of the relationship and as often as not, I had to force myself to get to the end of the book I was reading. The literary novels of the time were too tricksy for me at that stage of my life, yet I had grown out of the commercial bonkbusters by Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz and even Jilly Cooper... although The Thorn Birds did cast a spell.
I craved novels that combined the best qualities of literary and commercial fiction. Books with that wondrous mix of great plot and characters, first-rate writing and depth of thought and imagination found in the classics but rarely in contemporary novels.
Then Anne Tyler came into my life. The Accidental Tourist was recommended to me by my best friend, who in turn had been shown the light by her mother. We were sitting on the veranda of their island home talking about books as the slow sun set over the dark-blue North Sea. Bemoaning the lack of 'my kind of books', I was handed a copy of The Accidental Tourist, and Reader, we didn't quite get married and the love might be one-sided, me to her, but I was in love again; with the quietly stunning, quirky and oh-so-humane writing of Anne Tyler.
Like all Tyler's novels, The Accidental Tourist combines comedy and tragedy without veering into farce or sentimentality. It's a novel that runs deep and it showcases Tyler's ability to make the everyday both entirely recognizable and extraordinary. Macon Leary is a travel writer who hates travel and the entire purpose of his guides is to make the traveller feel as if he had never left home. 'Other travellers hoped to discover distinctive local wines; Macon's readers searched for pasteurized and homogenized milk.'
The novel starts on a sombre note. A year after their young son was killed, Macon's wife Sarah wants a divorce. But tragic is not the same as depressing and Anne Tyler doesn't do depressing. By chapter two I'm smiling at Macon's attempts to 'systemize' his life now he was free of the woman who 'stored her flatware intermingled'. But when he falls and breaks his legs he and Edward the dog are forced to move back with his three siblings who have all, one way or another, ended up back in the family home. The chapters spent in the company of the gentle, other-worldly, infuriating Leary siblings are some of my favourites. Edward, however, deals with his feelings of loss by biting strangers. Macon calls on Muriel the dog trainer to help sort Edward out. Muriel, with her mass of dark hair, her sharp face and eyes 'like caraway seeds' is the devoted single mother to a small endearing wheezy, pasty-faced son. Muriel never shuts up and doesn't know the meaning of the word 'routine'. Like Macon, I'm not sure that I approve of Muriel or her dog-training methods. But a relationship develops and Macon's frozen heart begins to thaw. Yet there are no simple solutions in Anne Tyler's novels. Sarah, the ex-wife, mother of his dead child, gets in touch and she wants her husband back. Macon has to decide between the known pleasures and comforts of his old life and a new, unknown and very untidy kind of love.
I lived that novel while I read it, just like in the good old days, and when I got to the end I started another, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. I loved it every bit as much as I had loved The Accidental Tourist. I moved on to Morgan's Passing, which I didn't like quite as much but well enough to keep reading with enthusiasm right to the end. I had got back my reading mojo, all thanks to Ms Tyler.
My mother was an artist but she stopped painting when she was still quite young. I keep asking her why and she always gives the same answer: 'Because I wasn't creating anything new. To be a great artist you have to break new ground and I was not able to do that.'
It was an uncomfortable way of looking at life and art. If she is right to feel the way she does, does it also apply to writing? And if so, how? Is it really all about Ulysses and To the Lighthouse? Is everything else, what I and most of us do, simply the equivalent of that dread thing, the 'nice watercolour landscape, pleasant, inoffensive, easy on the eye and mind'?
Anne Tyler tells me it isn't so. Her writing is pitch perfect but the style never dominates. The focus is on character and plot. It is writing that sneaks up on you with its brilliance, its insights, its sheer humanity. By the time you get to the end of one of her novels you will more likely than not perceive the world a little differently from the way you did before. To my mind that's breaking new ground with every sentence. To borrow from Emily Dickinson, Anne Tyler tells all the truth, but she tells it slant.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]