Book Review: Memory Wall Stories


I've never found short stories appealing.  I have no reasonable explanation for avoiding them, but rather I vaguely equated short with “less than.” I believed that short had to mean less developed. If Memory Wall Stories by Anthony Doerr is an indicator of quality of writing, short actually means “more than.” In fact, it’s in the very economy of words that Doerr’s writing flies off the page. In this book the words are carefully chosen to convey precise feelings and bring the reader into each narrative quickly.

The first story is where Doerr pulls the title of the book, and it’s the longest piece in the work. The main character is a South African woman who has lived a life of privilege and is both cranky and sad. We catch her disposition as she considers the question about whether she was happy:

“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 was shocked at how many surprises and twists this work had and how the assorted pieces fit together so beautifully in the end.

My favorite language example comes from the second piece, Procreate, Generate. In this story four sentences is all it takes for Doerr to paint a vivid image of his main character.

“Herb is medium-sized, bald, and of no special courage. His smile is a clumsy mosaic of teeth. Veins trail like root formations down his forearms. He teaches molecular phylogeny to undergraduates.”

Can’t you see Herb? As a man “of no special courage” your expectations of Herb’s behavior is perfectly satisfied as the story of Herb and his wife unfolds.

There is beauty with such an economy of words.

Consider how the third story, The Demilitarized Zone, begins:

“Paper my son has carried with him, touched a pen to. I press it to my nose but it smells like notebook paper, nothing more.”

What a great opening! Don’t you want to know what happened to the son? The story is only 9 pages long, so if you pick up the book, you’ll know soon enough.

The fourth story, Village 113, was previously published as the winner of the O. Henry prize for short stories (I had to look up what that meant here, but it’s a big deal!). The narrative is beautiful. In the story there is ongoing tension between a mother and a son. Even without context, you can feel the emotion in this paragraph:

“Again he does not appear in her doorway until close to midnight; again he eats like an aging prince. She finds imperfections she didn’t notice the day before; a fraying button thread, a missed patch of whiskers. His glasses are cloudy with smudges. A grain of rice clings to his lower lip and she has to restrain herself from brushing it free.”

I can feel the son’s flaws and his arrogance. You can see how the mother is redefining her relationship to the son. All of that in a handful of thoughts.

Story five, The River Nemunas, was the most melancholy of the stories, but in each narrative, I find Doerr likes his characters. They struggle and muddle their way through life, but there is a dignity in them all. As always, the language is gorgeous in its simplicity.

“Grandpa Z shouts. Something is surfacing twenty feet away from the boat. It comes up without hurrying, like a submarine, as if from a dream: breathtakingly huge, the size of a desk. It’s a fish.”

The final story in the book is about a very old woman in the final weeks of her life. What she experiences in her external world is quite different from what’s in her head. Doerr creates a narrative where we can follow along with her thoughts. The insights are profound:

“Why, Esther wonders, do any of us believe our lives lead outward through time? How do we know we aren’t continually traveling inward, toward our centers? Because this is how it feels to Esther when she sits on her deck in Geneva, Ohio, in the last spring of her life; it feels as if she is being drawn down some path that leads deeper inside, toward a miniature, shrouded, final kingdom that has waited with her all along."

If you can relate to me and have never picked up a book of short stories, I would highly recommend starting with Memory Wall Stories.

They are an absolute treat.