is a 2010 collection of seven short stories by American author Anthony Doerr. As the title (taken from the first story in the collection) suggests, all of the stories are tied together in some sense by the concept of memory—its reliability, its function in our lives, and the effect of its distortion or loss. Doerr is a novelist and short story writer who has received four O. Henry Awards, and his works have been translated into over 40 languages.
The first story, “Memory Wall,” is set in Cape Town, South Africa in the near future. As a science fiction story, it centers on a technology that allows people to record their memories and play them like videos. Alma Konachek is a 74-year-old woman who is suffering from dementia that is slowly robbing her of her memories. She is cared for by Pheko, her servant who is raising his son Temba on his own. Wealthy, Alma pays for the procedure so that she can preserve her memories before she loses them. One such memory is the day that her deceased husband, Harold, discovered a rare and valuable fossil in the desert and then died of a heart attack.
A con artist named Roger hires a “memory tapper”—a young man who has had the same memory procedure so that he can access the memories of rich people for financial gain—named Luvo. Luvo and Roger begin breaking into Alma’s home every evening, confident that Alma will not remember him in the morning. She is always awakened by them and sits with Roger chatting while Luvo reviews the next batch of memories in search of the fossil. Luvo becomes fascinated by Alma’s memories despite the fact that they reveal she is not the nicest person in the world.
On the night that Luvo stumbles across the location of the fossil in Alma’s memories, however, Alma shoots and kills Roger as an intruder. In making his escape, Luvo encounters Temba and is moved by the child’s obvious poverty. Luvo finds the fossil and is paid a large sum of money for the information; he gives Pheko and Temba a large amount out of the goodness of his heart. While staying in a hotel from Alma’s memories, Luvo dies from a complication stemming from the memory procedure.
In the second story, “Procreate, Generate,” Herb and Imogene have been happily married for ten years. They want to have children, but after trying for some time, they are unable to conceive. The couple decides to use in-vitro fertilization to achieve their dream. The first round of this expensive and difficult procedure is not successful, and the failure has a detrimental impact on their relationship. Herb begins to imagine having an affair, and Imogene fantasizes about simply packing a bag and leaving Herb to start over. They decide to risk one more round of the procedure, and the story ends before they learn whether it has been successful or not.
“The Demilitarized Zone” is the third story. A man, Davis, reads letters from his son—who is serving in the military in Korea at the titular DMZ—while dealing with a father who is sliding into dementia as well as with his wife, who has left him after having an affair. In one letter the son writes about a crane that flies into some wires and dies. The son takes the crane and buries it, but his kindness is punished as he is cashiered for being AWOL and designated to be sent home. Davis frets about telling his son about his marriage. A seed keeper in a small village in China, “Village 113,” observes the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and contemplates the fact that the small community will be completely flooded and submerged under water when the project is complete. The old woman does not wish to leave her home and contemplates how all memories are eventually inundated and erased like her village underwater and how seeds are in a way how memories are perpetuated in spite of this.
The fifth story is “The River Nemunas.” Allison, a 15-year-old girl from the U.S., moves to Lithuania to live with her grandfather after both her parents die. The river Nemunas is where her mother once went to fish as a child, but the river is now polluted and lifeless. To cope with her loss, Allison befriends a senile old woman and begins taking her fishing in order to replicate her mother’s memory. One day the old woman miraculously catches a fish in the dead river, but then passes away, leaving Allison to contemplate the nature of such memories.
In the sixth story, “Afterworld,” an old woman named Esther, a Holocaust survivor who is the only girl to have survived from the Jewish Orphanage where she grew up, suffers from epileptic fits of increasing severity. The fits cast her back into memories of her childhood. Although her family is upset by these fits, Esther sees them as a sign that existence is not a linear thing but rather a continuum. As her fits get worse and she approaches death, she sees her fellow orphan girls waiting for her and is at peace.
The final story in the collection is “The Deep.” Fourteen-year-old Tom lives with his mother in the late 1920s, running a boardinghouse where local miners stay. It is a cheap, grim place. Tom has been diagnosed with a heart condition that the doctors say will kill him before his 20th birthday. Tom meets a girl named Ruby who coaxes him out into the world, but then she leaves. The Depression hits and he loses everything, including his mother and the boarding house. He gets a job at the hospital maternity ward. Years go by and his condition worsens. One day he sees Ruby in there having a baby. He writes to her and they meet again, and the story ends with Tom amazed that he is still alive.