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Review: Billy O’Callaghan
Memory’s fragility, the genetic codes that shape us, and the tormenting and blessed shadows of our past provide the thematic cohesion for the seven stories of Anthony Doerr’s critically acclaimed and absorbing new collection.
Delivered in a delicate, musical prose style that occasionally erupts with gorgeously turned metaphors, the stories boast an impressive diversity, in their subject matter, setting and form.
An orphaned teenager is transplanted from Kansas to her grandfather’s Lithuania, a world where myth and reality are enmeshed. An old woman, a survivor of the Holocaust and weakened by violent bouts of epilepsy, struggles in the gentle care of her grandson with the guilt of having been spared.
A Chinese seed-keeper’s town has been scheduled for submergence by the construction of a nearby dam, which will obliterate the history of the place and its people. In the long title story, set in a Cape Town of the near future, a crumbling old woman has her memories surgically harvested and stored on cartridges. One of the cartridges holds a secret with the potential to change and save lives: the location of a priceless dinosaur skeleton.
Doerr is one of the modern short story’s most exciting and innovative exponents. It is a testament to the author’s skill that the main characters of these tales hardly need developing; rather, there is a sense that they already exist, fully formed and genuinely real. We visit with them, step into their lives, even at times into their minds. Plunged into turmoil, they mine the past and feel their way toward epiphanies that don’t change a great deal but bring a modicum of acceptance.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the beautiful and heartbreaking, Procreate, Generate, a simple, moving account of a couple battling the trauma of infertility and the sense-memories which gradually consume their lives.
A considerable strength of Memory Wall, as a collection, is how its echoes linger beyond the final page. Time is always turning, the past is never quite lost, and the communiqué between generations continues undiminished. Throughout, we feel a vague gravitational lure towards realisation, but much of what can be learned is left undefined. Because there are no easy answers.
At their heart, these are small stories, yet they offer us glimpses of a world where magic fuels the mundane. While outward details of varied locales tend to dominate the surfaces, from a reader’s perspective the real fireworks are internal: what survives of who we are, and what is left to ebb away.
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