"Age, bitter, invincible age. What a monster it was"
"I had toured a lot of attics in my time" says Barnaby Gaitlin early on A Patchwork Planet. Barnaby is the affable lead character and narrator of A Patchwork Planet, one of the more curious entries in the Anne Tyler canon. As some reviewers have noted, it was the first novel published after the death of her husband, which may explain in part why this novel seems more melancholy than most of Anne Tyler's books; it seems suffused in sadness and cynicism. Barnaby too is a different sort of character from her usual middle age misfits, being younger, male and telling the story in his own scratchy voice. I think Barnaby is the main reason I didn't enjoy Patchwork Planet as much as other Tyler books, something about him just didn't ring true for me. For a young male with a criminal past he seemed a strangely emasculated, almost feminine type of guy, and not a very likeable one at that. By his own admission, Barnaby is a liar, thief, phony, moody and selfish, a "thorny" character living a muddy life indeed, immature at best, perhaps even with mental health issues. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but when the lead character is so difficult to like, it makes the story somewhat of a slog to read and it is hard to really see where Barnaby's angst comes from; unlike other fantastic Tyler characters like Macon and Ezra, there is no great, underlying tragedy to Barnaby's life; good looking and from a wealthy family, he just seems in a sulk really most of the time.
On the positive side, Barnaby does seem to genuinely care about the elderly clients he helps, even though a lot of it stems from the strong sense of curiosity that so often seems to be his downfall. Indeed, the best parts of the book for me were the powerful descriptions of the indignities and vicissitudes of growing old, the passage of time laid out in passages of unsparing, despairing prose. "I'm telling you, don't ever get old!" Barnaby exclaims at one point, only half in jest, during a long monologue on the depressing decline that even the best of us face in our twilight years. And yet even at its bleakest, Barnaby's tirade is leavened with a sort of black humour towards his geriatric Greek chorus:
"To make a long story short they'll say when already they've gone on longer than God himself would have patience for."
Anne Tyler's books are far funnier than a lot of critics give her credit for and so it is here, that even when dealing with the saddest of subjects, death, decay, loneliness and illness, that she draws her characters and plot in exquisite shades of light and dark; it is another saving grace for A Patchwork Planet that she does this and one that makes the story easier to digest.
Ultimately, perhaps A Patchwork Planet was a book Anne Tyler needed to write, an emotional examination of the fragility and impermanence of human life in the wake of personal loss. It is a brave book, tackling subject matters rarely addressed in our modern, youth obsessed celebrity society. I admire Ann Tyler for A Patchwork Planet and it is certainly not its themes that I struggled with while reading it, but more the slightly unbelievable central character and his unsympathetic journey to redemption. Perhaps one to be stored in the attic, dusted down and read one again one day when the days draw in closer and the threads of time begin to unravel for the final time.
- Audio CD
- Publisher: Audible Studios on Brilliance (2 July 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1721344012
- ISBN-13: 978-1721344017
- Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 2.9 x 14 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 236 g
- Customer Reviews: 76 customer ratings