Memory Wall

CHARACTER BY CHARACTER and page by page, Memory Wall, Anthony Doerr’s collection of two novellas and five stories, inscribes an unstated but ever deepening connection: our interior memories are inextricably interwoven with the living places of our lives, and both are equally fragile and transmutable. In most of the stories a talismanic thing is being uncovered or buried, sinking beneath the surface or being slowly flooded — a 2-million-year-old fossil in South Africa, a presumed-extinct sturgeon in a Lithuanian River, a dead crane in the demilitarized zone between the Koreas, a small Chinese river town with ancient roots. And the characters who find, flee, float, bury, or uncover are all at the same time confronting the mystery of their memories, which flood in on them or dry up and blow away like dust.

What may be most remarkable about the collection is the vast imaginative perspective that Doerr evokes. Memory Wall enacts an authorial point of view at least a step or two beyond omniscient — perhaps the postmodern, satellite omniscient. These stories move from China and Korea to Idaho, Kansas, and Ohio, from Lithuania now to Hamburg in the 1930s to South Africa, twenty years in the future. The uncanny feeling is that Doerr channels these characters: a teenage girl who moves from Kansas to Lithuania to live with her grandfather, an old woman who is the seed keeper in a Chinese village intentionally being flooded behind the Three Gorges Dam, a wife and husband in Wyoming trying all available fertility technologies, and two entirely disparate characters in the title story, a young black boy and an old white woman, whose skulls have been bored and implanted with experimental memory access ports in the South Africa of 2024. Recounting this breadth of character, point of view, and place — and there are more — may sound daunting, even exhausting, but in Doerr’s careful, empathetic prose, the stories unfold easily and surely.

Through all these settings, and across the memories of all these characters, the natural world is an insistent constant. Vivid interior characterizations are interwoven with descriptions of weather and the living landscape to evoke the strong sense that human consciousness is of a pattern with flowers seeding, insects metamorphosing, birds migrating, clouds forming and unforming. All are part of the grand interplay of our changing planet, of which any single person, flower, insect, bird, or cloud can necessarily only see a small part. Yet Memory Wall, with its great narrative distances and the richness of its imagination, allows us a farther vision.