“Memory Wall” by Anthony Doerr

“Memory Wall” by Anthony Doerr (2010) – 242 pages

    “There were times when I was happy and times when I was not.”  continues Alma, “like anyone.  To say a person is a happy person or an unhappy person is ridiculous.  We are a thousand different kinds of people every hour.”

I read a couple of positive reviews of “Memory Wall” and also recalled some of the acclaim his first book of short stories, “The Shell Collector”, had received, but I still had no idea.   I never did get around to reading that first book, but after reading these stories in “Memory Wall”, I am quite certain that Anthony Doerr is a major talent, a force to be reckoned with.

For one thing, sentence for sentence, Doerr has a distinctive writing style.  He writes in very short sentences which are direct and at the same time can carry a lot of feeling.  Here is a fairly typical example of Doerr’s style from the opening of his story “The River Nemunas”.

    “My name is Alison.  I’m fifteen years old.  My parents are dead.  I have a poodle named Mishap in a pet carrier between my ankles and a biography of Emily Dickinson in my lap.  The flight attendant keeps refilling my apple juice.  I’m thirty six thousand feet over the Atlantic Ocean and out my smudgy little window the whole world has turned to water.“I’m moving to Lithuania.  Lithuania is in the upper right corner of Europe.  Over by Russia.  On the world map at school, Lithuania is pink.”

This bit really does sound like a fifteen year old girl to me, a quite observant and intelligent fifteen year old girl.   She is the narrator of the entire story, and you never tire of her voice.  These short sentences hold a lot of detail as well as underlying emotion.

The above also shows another quality of Anthony Doerr’s stories;  the plots are like nothing you have read before.   The six stories of “Memory Wall” take place on four different continents, and each has its own unique situation.  The stories do share a common theme.  Each of these stories is about “memory” or “memories”.  But such a focus restricts Anthony Doerr not at all in his choice of original plots.  I won’t even go into the individual plots of these stories, because I want you to discover them for yourself.  These stories are among the most dramatic and compelling I’ve read in a long time.  If you read one of these stories you will be hooked, you will read all of them.

Suppose you had the choice of reading either “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen or “Memory Wall” by Anthony Doerr.  Now “Freedom” is a smooth highly-readable  interesting novel.  However I would urge you to read “Memory Wall” first;  Anthony Doerr’s stories will still be read long after Franzen has been forgotten.

What else would you expect from the Writer-in-Residence for the State of Idaho? 

2 responses to this post.

  1. Tony, I had this out from the library but didn’t get around to reading it. I have read a story or two by Anthony Doerr in The Best American Short Stories or O. Henry and admired him. I’ll have to check out the library book again.


  2. Hi Frisbee,
    Yes, I consider this a real keeper. I’ll probably go back and read his first story collection, “The Shell Collector” at some point. I haven’t heard too much about the novels, but one of the stories in “Memory Wall” is 83 pages, so I expect he can handle the longer forms as well.


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