“What is memory anyway? How can it be such a frail, perishable thing?”
These are the central questions in Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall, a novella plus additional short stories. Without trying to provide easy answers or falling back on clichés, Doerr takes the reader deep into the fractured minds of his characters.
I was immediately drawn into the title novella’s premise, set in Cape Town. Alzheimer afflicted Alma has had a medical procedure to allow her memories to be “reaped” and replayed electronically. We get to know her in the present day, plus relive her flashbacks as her servant plays memories back to her. I love the idea that, “What we know is always evolving, always subdividing. Remember anything often enough and you can create a new memory, the memory of remembering.” What I love even more is that Doerr didn’t just write this as a sci-fi concept. He fills this story with heart-wrenching characters – all in search of history, memory, evidence of life.
Likewise, in the sweet and affecting “The River Nemunas,” we meet a young orphan dropped into rural Lithuania after the death of her parents. She and her cat (aptly named Mishap) try to find a place, a rhythm to this new life. Mostly though, Allison struggles against the weight of memory.
“Thinking about the house sitting there empty back in Kansas starts the Big Sadness swinging in my chest like a pendulum and soon a blue flood is streaming around the edges of my vision. It comes on fast this time and the axe blade is slicing up organs willy-nilly and all of the sudden I’m looking into a very blue bag and someone’s yanking the drawstring closed.”
Doerr’s writing is both beautiful and haunting. I was impressed by his character development, especially in such short stories. Whether he’s writing an aging Holocaust victim’s childhood in Poland or a Wyoming couple’s struggles with infertility, he finds each person’s true voice. I was swept away time and time again.
“Every hour, Robert thinks, all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during that same hour children are moving about, surveying territory that seems to them entirely new. They push back the darkness; they scatter memories behind them like bread crumbs. The world is remade.”