Somerset Maugham gave one book of short stories the title The Mixture As Before; and so indeed it doubtless was. There’s no reason why novelists should be expected or required to strike out into new territory. Painters, after all, are permitted to return to the same scenes or subjects repeatedly. Some writers do likewise – Ivy Compton-Burnett and, in a different style, Iris Murdoch being examples. Anne Tyler doesn’t need to seek out new themes; it’s enough to devise variations on familiar ones. This is one reason why people love her well-mannered novels. They are as generous as they are perceptive. Most have been set in Baltimore where she lives – but only the last section of her new one. Her Baltimore is very different from the violent crime-ridden city of The Wire; she describes it as “a very kind-hearted city, friendly and gentle”. Clock Dance offers four episodes in the life of Willa Drake. The first three dated 1967, 1977, 1997 constitute Part I of the novel; Part II, the last, and longest episode, which is set in Baltimore, is dated 2017.
In 1967 Willa is a girl of 11, and it’s a weekend when her lively, unpredictable mother, an amateur actress, always giving a performance whether on stage or off, walks out on the family, to the distress of Willa and her younger sister.
Their father, a kindly man, is unworried. She’ll be back, and when she does return, there will be no word of apology. In 1977 she is a student engaged to be married to a young man she loves, but one who will bend her to his will. Twenty years later she is a widow as a result of an accident, and mother of two sons neither of whom she seems to be close to. She has lived as others demanded of her, and you feel the future may be bleak.
Actually Tyler boldly skips the next two decades to give us Willa married a second time to a semi-retired corporate lawyer, Peter, and living in Arizona where she could “never adjust to how you needed constant air conditioning here”.
She is not unhappy, but she isn’t happy either. Then she gets a telephone call telling her that her son Sean’s former girlfriend had been shot, wounded, not killed. It’s a neighbour speaking. She’s found a number for “Sean’s mother” and there’s a nine-year old girl and a dog needing to be cared for. Willa doesn’t say she isn’t in fact the girl Cheryl’s grandmother. Instead she flies to Baltimore, Peter tagging reluctantly along, and finds to her surprise new and welcome responsibilities, new friends, new meaning and just in time she will come at last to know herself. She has been put through life’s education course in a way Jane Austen would have appreciated.
The novel is full of small delights. When one character says his mother’s idea of hell would have been marrying Gandhi, Willa realises this is just what her mother may have done. “My father,” she says, “was so mild-mannered that he thought it was impolite to pick up a telephone in mid-ring. He always allowed a ring to finish before he answered… It was marry such a person or be such a person, I used to figure.” She gets the right reply: “You might want to rethink that.”
Tyler is generous to her characters. She allows them what life often seems to deny people: the chance to rethink things, to realise, as the character, Ben, now says to Willa, “Those aren’t your only two choices, you know.” There are always more possibilities than present themselves at first.
Helen Dunmore said that Tyler “writes with an apparent effortlessness which conceals great art”. This is a just comment.
What is easy reading was often hard writing. Knowing, or discovering, what to put in and what to leave out, or strike out, comes from the devoted practice of the craft.
She has a keen eye and an alert ear, sympathy for her characters, an awareness of both life’s comedy and its tragedy; and she offers all this with economy and well-mannered decorum.
Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler, Chatto & Windus, 292pp, £18.99