Sunday, January 25, 2015

Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr

At the end of life, memories dominate

Memory was the theme of this collection of short fiction. The opening story, “Memory Wall,” is actually a novella, set only a little ways into the future. An elderly woman in South Africa is being treated for dementia by a machine that replays her previously recorded memories. One of the memory “discs” has recorded her deceased archeologist’s husband find of a rare fossil, a gorgon. Bad guys have figured this out and one night break into the old woman’s home, bringing with them a fifteen year old stooge with ports in his head who will “read” the discs, desperately trying to find that particular lucrative memory. Will he (she?) ever find that lost memory? Other stories concern infidelity, an orphaned girl and an old woman who is the last inhabitant of a valley about to be flooded in China. The closing story (which is also almost a novella) is about the plight of twelve Jewish orphans during the Holocaust.  

The range of settings and characters is impressive. And the prose was well-crafted, if long-winded. However, this book wasn’t my cup of tea. I felt nearly every story was rooted in a sonorous sentimentality that eventually grated. Often, the “twists and turns” felt workshoppy, with inoffensive careful descriptions. The characters reek of nobility. The title novella has a key character exactly like the subservient chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy. Also, the premise of the Holocaust story offended me. Are we saying that murdered children end up in some sort of Last House on the Left Internet radio station? However, many of the stories had a strong narrative drive that was gripping. I especially liked “The River Nemunas”, about a sturgeon that can’t be caught.

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