Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr

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“Every hour, 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.”

No surprise that the stories in Memory Wall all focus on memory, attempts to retrieve it and loss. The three most successful stories (Memory Wall, Village 113 and Afterworld) all feature old women on the verge of losing their memory. Memory Wall itself flutters playfully towards sci-fi. Alma, to combat encroaching dementia, has had many of her memories downloaded onto cartridges ( yeah, you have to huff and puff a bit here to suspend disbelief ) that line the wall of a spare room in her house. One of these cartridges contains the memory of the day her husband Harold, a fossil fanatic, discovered an intact dinosaur skeleton out in the desert before succumbing to a heart attack. Two street urchins, one of whom is a “memory-tapper” (he’s had the same operation as Alma) enter her house every night searching for this cartridge. It’s a wacky brilliant story teeming with Doerr’s fabulous stylised lyrical prose and his offsetting of intimate human moments with the eternal impersonal rhythms of the natural world.

The real stunner though is the last story, Afterworld. This reads like an inspired trial run for All the Light We Cannot See. Afterworld tells the story of Esther, a German Jewess who suffers from epilepsy and grows up in a Hamburg orphanage during the years of Nazism.  She is the only girl in the orphanage to escape deportation and grows up to become a celebrated illustrator of children’s books.  The writing throughout is utterly gorgeous.

Like many books of short stories Memory Wall contains the brilliant, the good and average. Village 113 was good. The River Nemunas read like Doerr had just read all of Nichole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer’s books and had a bash at writing fan fiction. Procreate Generate was okay and I can’t now remember a thing about The Demilitarised Zone. Worth buying though for Memory Wall itself and Afterworld.

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