Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1793
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr is a collection of five short stories, all written in Doerr’s beautiful and ponderous prose. “Tall Man in the Yard” is the first and longest story. It centers on seventy-four-year-old Alma Konachek, who is a widow with severe memory loss. She lives in Cape Town, Africa; her servant, Pheko, takes care of her during the day. Pheko uses his pay to try to care for his son, Temba, who lives with him in the slums of the city—he is a hard-working man just trying to help his son.
A new medical procedure allows Alma to extract her memories and put them on film so she can watch them like a movie. She spends most of her days watching her memories. Just before her husband died, he discovered a rare dinosaur fossil; however, due to Alma’s faulty memory, no one has been able to discover where that fossil is.
A local con artist, Roger Tshoni, reads the article about the fossil in the paper and is determined to find out where it is. After observing Alma’s trips to the doctor, he realizes she is undergoing the memory treatment and that the memory containing the fossil discovery might be on her cartridges. He sneaks into Alma’s house each night, hoping to find the one where her husband discovered the fossil. He recruits a local orphan, Luvo, to watch Alma’s memories. Luvo is young and underwent an operation to be compatible with the machine that plays the memories. Through Luvo’s viewing of the memory cartridges, Alma is revealed to have been a discontented character who held to class distinctions and a bit of racism. She was just about to leave Harold, her absent-minded husband who seemed to love fossils more than he loved her, when he died. Luvo gets lost in her memories, and they become part of his own dreams at night.
Alma’s memory loss makes it such that she never remembers that Roger, a stranger to her, daily breaks into her house. Each night she is startled, goes downstairs, and sits and talks with Roger while Luvo searches her memories for the right one. However, one night, Alma is so startled by Roger’s intrusion that she grabs a gun and shoots him—killing him instantly while Luvo is upstairs watching her memories. Pheko arrives with Temba shortly after and reports the death.
During the evening, Luvo finally discovered the memory of the fossil; he manages to escape out the back. As he is running through the backyard, Temba sees him. They have a brief conversation before Luvo flees. Luvo perceives the poverty of the boy and the difficult situation in which he lives, and he is moved. Luvo sells some of Alma’s memory cartridges to buy supplies, then he spends a week in the desert until he finds the fossil. He sells the fossil for a phenomenal sum of money. He is a kind-hearted character, so he donates the money to Temba and Pheko before checking into a hotel from one of Alma’s memories. He dies there from complications of his memory operation.
In the second story, “Procreate, Generate,” Herb is a patient, diligent, and loving husband, and Imogene is a hard worker who is introverted and private in nature. They have been married for and years. The story begins as they decide they are ready to have a child. However, they are not able to conceive. The story outlines in detail all of the haranguing steps they take to try to get pregnant, including rigorous and financially stressful in vitro fertilization.
The first round of in vitro does not result in pregnancy; Imogene and Herb are devastated. They each cope in their own way—Imogene retreats further into herself and Herb attempts to comfort her, with no results. Their marriage starts to feel the strain. Herb considers an affair with one of his students and Imogene considers just leaving everything and starting over somewhere else. They decide to go for one more round of in vitro; the story leaves it open-ended as to whether it works the second time.
The third story, “The Demilitarized Zone,” tells of Davis, a recently divorced man whose son is fighting in the Vietnam War. He is a patient and caring man whose love for his absent son is deeply evident. His son sends home letters that tell of his life at war, including his disenchantment with his purpose there and the various jungle diseases he has contracted. Davis treasures these letters and reads them over and over. Davis has yet to tell his son about the divorce. His wife cheated on him, and he has not worked up the courage to write and relate the news.
His wife pops by the house every once in a while to get things that she left behind; they do not talk much. Out of possessiveness, he does not give her recent letters from their son. Meanwhile, he takes care of his own father, who has dementia and needs a lot of care.
In one of his son’s letters, his son tells of how a crane got injured in a land mine. Its feet were blown off, and he took the crane off the base, out into the forest, to bury it. Leaving the base was forbidden; he is not sure what the consequence will be. Not long after the arrival of this letter, Davis gets a call from his son, saying that he is coming home. The story ends with the father’s excitement to see him again, along with his trepidation over the divorce situation. He knows he will have to tell his son about it soon.
The fourth story, “Village 113,” takes place in China. A dam is being built, and people in villages along the river are being moved to the city after being offered recompense checks. The story centers around a woman identified as the seedkeeper: she keeps and sells seeds to the villagers. She misses her son, who moved out to live in the city decades ago; she is haunted by memories of him as a boy.
In her village, most people choose to take the checks the government is offering them and move out; the seedkeeper is one of the few who remains, along with the old village schoolteacher, Teacher Ke. Teacher Ke is seen as a fanatic, a lunatic on the fringes; however, she identifies with his reluctance to leave.
The seedkeeper’s son, Li Qing, is one of the main engineers in charge of the construction of the dam. He convinces her to visit the city for a while; however, she dislikes it so much that she returns to the village until the last possible moment. Li Qing is patient with her traditional and conservative nature and allows her to stay until the day the village is to be destroyed. He then takes her to the city, where she slowly adjusts and becomes a part of Li Qing’s faster-paced life. She even takes some seeds with her, and she teaches her grandchildren to grow them.
The fifth story, “The River Nemunas,” follows 15-year-old Allison as she moves to Lithuania to live with her Grandpa Z after both of her parents die of cancer. She is stricken with grief and suffering from the shock of such huge changes in her life. She flies to Lithuania and goes through the motions of her new life in a daze, trying not to feel the tidal wave of emotions that hits her every time she thinks of her parents, their house, or her old life.
Grandpa Z tries to help her; he is patient and respectful of her space. He is also a hard-working, practical man; he goes to work each day and comes home to care for her. Allison makes friends with their elderly next-door neighbor, Mrs. Sabo. They spend their evenings together watching TV.
Near her grandfather’s house is a large, slow-moving river. Her grandfather tells her that her mother used to spend time fishing on the river, catching and releasing huge sturgeons that swam there before the pollution from factories killed them or drove them all to the ocean. One day as she escapes to the river to cope with her grief, she sees a huge fish jump in the stream; she decides that she wants to catch it. She tells her Grandfather of the fish; he does not believe her and insists that nothing has lived in that river for years.
After looking at photographs of her mother as a child, fishing on the river, Allison finds an old boat and restores it. Then she takes Mrs. Sabo fishing with her to try to find the large fish she saw. They go every evening, and every evening they have no success. Through the process, however, Allison is slowly learning to cope with her grief; as the days pass, she emerges more and more from her fog.
One day Mrs. Sabo manages to catch something so large and powerful that it snaps the line in two. Allison is even more convinced a sturgeon is in the water. She gets her grandfather to go fishing with her the next time, and they are successful in hooking the sturgeon and dragging it alongside the boat before letting it go. Her grandfather is incredulous, and Allison is triumphant. The story ends with her description of how the pain never fades but life moves on, just like the river did.
The concluding story of the book, “Afterworld,” describes Esther Gramm, an elderly Jewish woman who has suffered from epilepsy her entire life. Her seizures are getting worse, and her grandson is in town taking care of her. Her seizures bring her back to her time in a German orphanage during World War II.
In her youth at the Jewish orphanage, a kindly doctor diagnoses her with epilepsy and provides her with medicine; however, as the war draws closer, the situation becomes precarious and her medicine runs out. During her seizures, she has grand visions; in one, she sees where the doctor's wife has been taken. She is also a talented artist—after the war, she makes a career of these skills.
In the orphanage, one by one, the girls are sent away to work camps. At great personal risk, the doctor arranges for Esther to escape the country. She is smuggled all the way to America, where she survives and lives her life haunted by the memories of her friends, all of whom perished in the war. The story ends with her death; her grandson finds the names of all of the girls she lived with in the orphanage.