Until quite recently I hadn’t heard of the writer Anthony Doerr (and still don’t know how to pronounce his name). But there was a short story of his in Granta, the American Wild issue, and despite it having the kind of title that most days would send me running quite fast in the opposite direction – it’s called “Thing With Feathers That Perches in the Soul”– I sat down to give it a read. It was only 11 pages, after all.
The upshot was I liked it; liked it a lot. Looked up the author, who, it turns out to be around 40 and to hail from Cleveland, Ohio. Went in search of other things and found a novel called About Grace.This is how it’s described in Doerr’s own website …
Doerr’s second book, a novel entitled About Grace, is about a hydrologist named David Winkler who occasionally dreams events that later come true. The book tries to ask questions about snowflakes, predetermination, the nature of family, and the intersections of the human and natural worlds.
… which didn’t exactly seem my natural cup of tea and turned out to be – and excuse me for this – somewhat over-brewed. To be a tad more specific, I found it overlong, with a central section that sat uneasy between the rest, and in places over-written – Doerr writes with elegiac beauty about human frailty and the power of nature, weaving complex metaphors into a literary carpet of dazzling numinosity and with a long middle section that sat uneasily between the rest, said the Evening Standard, that well-known arbiter of literary taste.
But because I did like some of the book a good deal, I went back to the stacks and came up with a collection of stories under the title, Memory Wall. Just six stories (with a extra one added for the UK paperback edition: seven stories, then, of which four are, I think, quite brilliant, and the other three merely very good indeed.
The writing is quite matter-of-fact, straightforward even, but with lyrical touches; the characterisation clear and distinctive; the settings range from middle America to South Africa via Lithuania. The title story, and at 85 pages by far the longest in the book, centres around the wavering mind of an elderly white South African woman in a country radically divided by race, money and class; in “Afterworld” another ageing woman is increasingly swamped by memories of her childhood friends who perished in the Holocaust while she survived; in the additional story, “The Deep”, the main character is a boy who has been told that, because of a heart defect, he will not live beyond his middle teens.
Difficult material with a propensity, one might think, for strong emotions and tragic endings. Tick the former, though the writing keeps them well controlled, but nix the latter. The one thing that links these stories, and which, in the current literary climate, renders them unusual, is the almost complete lack of ironic distance, the way in which Doerr endows them with a positive humanism which stays just the right side of sentimentality, while allowing for tears.
I read these stories not just with a sense of joy, but also of awe. I could never write stories like that, I thought, when finally I laid the book aside. I want to write stories like that, I thought, and one day I might try.