Memory Wall, By Anthony Doerr

The memory of all that...

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives." Luis Buñuel's words make for a fitting epigraph to Anthony Doerr's brilliant collection of stories, which explores both the power and the fragility of memory.

Memory is figured as a persistent, even oppressive force: in "Afterworld", a Holocaust survivor is overcome by visions of lost friends; in "The Demilitarized Zone", a middle-aged cuckold is unable to forget his wife's betrayal.

Memory is also shown to be a "pale, perishable thing": in "Village 113", a town disappears beneath the churning Yangtze waters; in "The River Nemunas", an orphaned teenager struggles to recall details of her childhood. The title story concerns an elderly South African woman with dementia; here, Doerr chillingly describes the mental "corrosion" that accompanies the disease, the "cruel erasure" of self that it threatens.

But there are lighter moments. Like Proust, Doerr understands that reminiscences are prompted by the most mundane of things. He lovingly itemises the contents of his characters' homes – their "empty tobacco pouches", their "spatulas and salad forks", their "warped baking sheets and half-used shampoo bottles" – and he describes how each object carries personal significance. In doing so, he shows us that memory can transform the terrain of everyday life into something rich, charged, magical.