Barbara J. King: The Last Book I Loved, Memory Wall


Short stories have never attracted me; the shock of moving from one to the next is too great. Just as I submerge fully in a new world, floating along on some character’s bliss or bitterness, I’m locked out. Disorientation results, even as the river of prose flows on to the next best thing.

It’s all the more remarkable, then, that Anthony Doerr’s collection Memory Wall is the last book I loved.

Six stories make up this volume. The first and longest is “Memory Wall,” already a prize winner from its stint in McSweeney’s. In a future South Africa, an elderly widow suffers from memory loss, and meets up with a pair of thieves who try to steal and profit from the memory cartridges created as part of her therapy.

The character Luvo captivated me the most. A young boy with a troubled past and grim future, Luvo becomes drawn to fossils. Through him, we come to see fossils as memory keepers, our portal to the past. Images not only from the old woman’s life but also from creatures numberless and timeless fill Luvo’s mind:

Dreams of ancestors, dreams of long ago men… Thick-bodied herds, rain-animals and handprints, lines of dots descending from a sky and plugging into a rhinoceros horn. Men with antelope heads. Fish with the face of men. Women dissolving into mists of red.

Evolution, with its relentless balance of change and continuity, pulses through the story, reminding us that at a grand scale, life goes on. It is just as Luvo thinks it: We are all intermediaries.

Meanwhile, on a human scale, there’s searing loss. It’s the rarest thing, Luvo thinks, that gets preserved, that does not get erased, broken down, transformed.

Transformation comes to the fore again in “Village 113.” For all that I marveled at “Memory Wall’s” language, it was with this story that I truly became enthralled with the book. In a remote village in China, families pack up and leave, slowly and more slowly, as the seasons move inexorably towards July 31st. On that day, a great dam’s gates will open, erasing the village.

Old woman Li Qing, the village’s seed-keeper, watches the people go:

She tries to imagine what her garden will look like through all that water—China pear and persimmon, the muddy elbows of pumpkin vines, the underside of a barge passing fifty feet above her roof.

Li Qing’s son works for the dam commission. After years of estrangement, he shows up again in the village. Both betrayed by and linked to her son, she is resolute about what course of action to take. What happens month by month as July 31st nears is hauntingly written. The story is perfection. It has won The O Henry Prize.

In “The River Nemunas,” Doerr takes us to Lithuania along with a young orphan who arrives there to live, from Kansas. He gifts the girl with believable depth of emotion even while allowing an ancient river sturgeon to glow with meaning equal to that of any human. It’s not a fish. I know it’s not a fish, thinks the girl. It’s just a big lump of memory at the bottom of the River Nemunas.

The trio of stories I’ve named are my favorites, but the remaining three grabbed me to various degrees as well. In each, someone remembers; someone longs. With only one—predictably enough, the shortest at only nine pages—did I finish feeling less than replete.

Four Seasons in Rome, Doerr’s memoir that stars his twin infant sons, brought this writer to my notice. Now, thanks to him, I’m at last making eye contact with the wall of short-story books in my local store. My first choice? The Shell Collector, Doerr’s 2003 collection.

Barbara J. King teaches anthropology at the College of William and Mary. At Amboseli National Park in Kenya she studied baboons, but gazed frequently at the elephants. Her latest book is Being With Animals. Read her Friday Animal Blog here—your comments are welcome. More from this author →