For many, including this reader, Anthony Doerr is not a household name, though his resume is quite impressive. Doerr is an accomplished writer, having received multiple O. Henry Prizes, awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship. He is currently the Writer-in-Residence for the State of Idaho. MEMORY WALL,a thematically linked collection of short stories, is Doerr’s second such effort, having also written two novels. The offerings here share memory, the source of meaning and coherence in our lives as a common theme. The result is a powerful and thought-provoking series of stories.
The novella-length “Memory Wall” is set in modern South Africa. Alma Konachel is a 74-year-old South African widow suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Surgery allows her to recall her life’s experience by implanting encapsulated memories into her brain. When not in use, those memory capsules are stored in her private memory wall, and one of them contains a memory noteworthy for its value. Two young, unscrupulous men break into Alma’s home seeking to discover and seize this unique treasure. The beauty of the story is what it asks and tells the reader about memories. Even our private memories do not really belong to us. In many ways, the only value of a memory comes from sharing it with others. “Memory Wall” is also a mysterious and thrilling story that has already been optioned to Hollywood; its unique plot has the potential for a thrilling movie.
“The River Nemunas” is haunting because it is so untraditional. Fifteen-year-old Allison has lost her mother and father to the ravages of cancer. Her only living relative is Grandpa Z., who lives in Lithuania. Allison’s story is told in her voice as she travels from Kansas to Europe to live with her grandfather. This unique moment in her life is captured by her comments to Grandpa Z. as they eat their first dinner together. “It’s okay,” I say, “I’ve been saying it’s okay a lot lately. I’ve said it to church ladies and flight attendants and counselors. I don’t know if I’m fine or if it’s okay, or if saying it makes anyone feel better. Maybe it’s just something to say.” As Allison settles into her new Lithuanian life, she experiences some of the same events that her mother recounted to her about her childhood. Experiencing these memories after her mother’s death creates an upside down view of life, making “The River Nemunas” provocative as well as entertaining. They also allow Doerr to devote part of the story to one of his favorite motifs: fishing.
“Afterworld” takes readers to a German orphanage where a dozen Jewish girls live as Adolph Hitler rises to power. Esther Gramm is one of the 12 who somehow manages to avoid the death camps of the Holocaust. This story reminds us of the never-ending life cycle, where each day memories are dragged to the grave while others frolic and new ones are created. Each day, the world is remade.
MEMORY WALL is a beautiful book that my miserly words cannot truly capture and describe. In an era of glitzy and gaudy stories, this is a collection that will rekindle a fire in readers, that there are still top-notch writers whose stories are to be savored. Those who still appreciate great literature will enjoy Doerr’s latest effort.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 7, 2011