by Anthony Doerr
Awards: Winner, 2010 Story Prize
is there in Luvo's life that makes sense? Dusk in the Karoo becomes
dawn in Cape Town. What happened four years ago is relived twenty
minutes ago. An old woman's life becomes a young man's. Memory-watcher
Reviewed by Tania Hershman
Here's a caution to all short story writers: if the first story in your collection is too
good, if it happens to actually be a masterpiece, watch out. You may
set such high standards that even you might not be able to meet them. This is the
"problem" with Anthony Doerr's Memory Wall.
I found the title story, which opens the collection of six, is so
astonishing, so brilliant, so moving - it moved me to tears each time I
read it - that the other five stories, which, without the giant shadow cast by Memory Wall, would be at worst very, very good indeed, had a hard time holding their own. Mostly, though, they do.
Now, how to review the masterpiece without simply gushing? Another "problem"! At 85 pages, Memory Wall is
on the cusp of novella territory. As a devoted reader of flash fiction
who often loses patience with stories longer than four pages let alone 80. I was dubious. In fact, I was dubious about the whole
collection, given the accolades it had already received. I challenged
it to win me over. You may have already guessed that it did.
is divided into very short sections with seemingly-innocuous subtitles
such as "Tall Man in the Yard" and "Treasure Island". The opening
paragraph is also deceptive: it appears to simply state facts, but a closer reading shows
that in fact it foreshadows every element of this story:
Alma Konachek lives in Vredehoek, a suburb above Cape Town: a place of
warm rains, big-windowed lofts, and silent, predatory automobiles.
Behind her garden, Table Mountain rises huge, green, and corrugated;
beyond her kitchen balcony, a thousand city lights wink and gutter
behind sheets of fog like candleflames.Unpacking this
paragraph, it's all here: this is a story about age and ageing, about
predators, about the land, about history, about modernity versus
nature, about technology old and new, about the fog of memory, about
contrasts and the grayness of life, the lack of easily-defined good and
This is a science fiction story in that its central conceit involves
fictitious technology for storing memories. This is a thriller
about missing treasure. This is a coming-of-age story, a story about
racial tensions, exploitation, science. About love,
parents and children, marriage, death, crime,
history, fossils. About what we will leave behind. This is a
story that exposes the futility of trying to label any piece of
writing, to put it in one neat box.
The story unfolds in a concertina fashion, moving between Alma and her
manservant, Pheko, and his small son, the man in the yard, the child the
man in the yard stole/saved. The weaving of their stories took my
breath away - as a writer, I could imagine the enormous time and effort it took. It was perfectly done, exactly the
information you needed at the ideal pace and point in the story.
I won't give away the plot, which relies upon this new world in which
memories can not only be saved onto cassettes, they become a commodity
to be traded and a drug for those whose present is not the place they
want to live in. But the beauty here is that each character is alive,
you care about them; even those with nefarious intentions are not
wholly bad. Everyone has realistic and complex
motivations for their actions, has impulses and desires that are
familiar to us. This is how the greatest fiction should be, in my
opinion. Through this story, Doerr touches something deep within
the human psyche, something primal and intimate. I cannot
recommend it highly enough.
my declaration about the other stories having trouble holding their own
was a bit of an overstatement because although the next two stories didn't speak to me, I did very much enjoy the final
three stories in the collection, which work beautifully together. Village 113,
another story divided into smaller, titled sections, also deals with
loss and memory, but in a very different way, with the imminent
destruction by "submergence", of
a village in an unnamed Asian country.
The main character is a seed
keeper, a very clear metaphor for what is being lost here. Her only
son, Li Qong, who has moved to the city, returns as part of the effort
to persuade reluctant villagers - including his mother - to leave. This is also a story about mothers and
sons, about one generation coming after another, about nature versus
Now it is dusk again and Li Qong sits at her
table in his jacket and tie and recites numbers. The dam will be made
from eleven million tons of concrete: Its parapet will be a mile long;
its impoundment will swallow a dozen cities, a hundred towns, a
thousand villages. The river will become a lake and the lake will be
visible from the moon.The river is the connection between this story and the next, The River Nemunas, in
which a suddenly-orphaned American teenage girl is sent, with her dog, Mishap, to live
with her grandfather in Lithuania. Doerr is excellent at not taking
his stories in the directions you might predict, but without fireworks,
very quietly and poignantly. Where Village 113 is told by a distant third-person narrator, here we are right inside the head of our main character, Allison, who lost both
parents to cancer within three months:
'The size of things,' he says, and smoke rises past his glasses.
then I feel the Big Sadness coming on, like there's a shiny and sharp
axe blade buried inside my chest. The only way I can stay alive is to
stay absolutely motionless so instead of whispering Dear God how could
you do this to me, I only whisper Amen which Pastor Jenks back home
told me means I believe, and I lie with my eyelids closed
clutching Mishap and inhaling his smell, which always smells to me like
corn chips, and practice breathing in light and breathing out colour...
like the counselor told me to do when the panic comes.The final story in the book, Afterworld, takes
the themes of death and grief forwards. Another skilfully-woven and
weighty, poignant story, it intertwines the present of a Holocaust survivor
nearing the end of her life with the tale of how she was rescued and
the ghosts of the girls who were not so fortunate, who are waiting for
her in the afterlife.
Anthony Doerr's writing is amongst the
most beautiful I have ever read, combining poetry with a delicate
precision; avoiding direct sentiment and, by doing so, eliciting strong
emotional reactions from this reader - and, given the accolades - many
This collection is a unique exploration of some of the weightiest of life's issues, looked at from diverse and compelling
viewpoints by characters in a variety of circumstances. We are all
affected, Doerr seems to be saying, wherever we are, whoever we are. We
are all in pain, we all cause pain to others, ultimately we all want
the same things. The past is a shadow that is always with us, as we
strain to stay in the present and move towards the future. It is this
tension, this seemingly-insolvable puzzle that is at the heart of this wondrous book. This is the work of a master storyteller.
is editor of The Short Review. Her first collection, The White Road and
Other Stories, was commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Tania
is currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol
University, working on a collection of biology-inspired fictions.
find something to read: reviews
find something to read: interviews
find something to read: categories
find something to
Anthony Doerr is the author of four books, The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, and, most recently, Memory Wall.
Doerr’s short fiction has won three O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in
The Best American Short Stories, The Anchor Book of New American Short
Stories, and The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. He
has won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New
York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a Guggenheim
Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Fiction,
two Pushcart Prizes, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, two Ohioana Book
Awards, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and the 2010 Story
His books have twice been a New York Times Notable Book,
an American Library Association Book of the Year, and made lots of
other year end "Best Of" lists. In 2007, the British literary magazine
Granta placed Doerr on its list of 21 Best Young American novelists.
Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho with his wife and two sons. He
teaches now and then in the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson
College in North Carolina. His book reviews have appeared in the New
York Times and Der Spiegel, and he writes a regular column on science
books for the Boston Globe.
with Anthony Doerr