The exquisitely crafted stories in Anthony Doerr's acclaimed debut collection take readers from the African coast to the pine forests of Montana to the damp moors of Lapland, charting a vast physical and emotional landscape. Doerr explores the human condition in all its varieties-metamorphosis, grief, fractured relationships, and slowly mending hearts-and conjures nature in both its beautiful abundance and crushing power. Some of his characters contend with tremendous hardship; some discover unique gifts; all are united by their ultimate deference to the mysteries of the universe outside themselves.
And he can't write about Africans for shit. In fact, his attempts were almost offensive. If this was 1700 and Africa was still the unknown, he could people it with barbarians and alienated semi-adapted, cerebral metaphors; but it isn't and his African stories ("The Caretaker" and "Mkondo"), while perhaps well structured and rewarding to interpret, use foreignness as a blocking device to protect characters who act in unlikely but memorable ways. When he lightens up, ("July Fourth"--oily feel to it, and "For a Long Time This Was Griselda's Story") he can sound a bit like a more self-conscious Lewis Nordan, which is weird but good. Doerr has potential; but he needs to branch out and stop projecting his fantasies on real things.
Lastly, you must like fishing and people isolated in the back country in an Annie Dillard sort of way to get enjoyment from this at all. There are no cities or social settings that involve more than two people in conversation at once (pretty much).
In "The Shell Collector", Doerr draws inspiration from the world of science. The blind collector trawls the beaches and coral reefs of Kenya, his retreat from the world, spending his time sifting through the sand granules in search of rare shell specimens, his life long study - but his private world is overturned when he happens on a cure for malaria, strangely enough from the lethal poison of a cone snail. Soon, he is overrun by relatives of the sick and other outsiders when word quickly spreads about the miracle cure. . . . . . "The Hunter's Wife" has the gift of psychic commune with the spirits of earth's creatures and this poses a challenge to their life together in the harsh Montana winterscape. . . . . . In "Mkondo", Doerr explores the theme of people caught between different cultures: a newly married couple from the rainforests of Tanzania and the suburbs of Oregon respectively, discover how love can first blossom - and then wither, depending on where they are: "She was learning that in her life everything - health, happiness, even love - was subject to the landscape". . . . . ."The Caretaker", a refugee from civil war in Liberia, now in Oregon, struggles to recover from the trauma of witnessing atrocities and being forced to carry out an execution.
Another story,"A Tangle By The Rapid River" is reminiscent of some hunting stories in Annie Proulx's "Heartsong's and other stories", an excellent collection of gritty stories set in rugged country. Both books strongly recommended.
I had some favorites amount them, and all the others were not entirely my cup of tea.
I especially like The Shell Collector and The Hunters Wife.
Still enjoyed reading most of the book.
Mr. Doerr is a remarkable nature writer; in face, the natural world is as much a character in his stories as are his protagonists. Don’t read him in a hurry. But do read him.
Read them all if you are keen to delve into Anthony Doerr's inspiration. Select a few if you are apt to attach deeper allegorical meanings to simple stories. But don't let it put you off his masterful All the Light We Cannot See.
The Shell Collector - 3/5 - the best of the three I read, tells the story of a blind shell collector, his life and visitors. The ending was thoughtful. On deeper reflection, this story could be considered an allegory.
The Hunter's Wife - 2/5 - a separated couple, their history and the separate paths they follow. Honestly, I struggle to remember what happened.
Mkondo - 2/5 - a man visits Africa and meets a woman, their journey thenceforth, and their relationships with nature and each other. Like The Shell Collector, a more thoughtful person than myself could interpret Mkondo as some kind of allegory.
As with any collection, some will have more appel to a reader than will others. My personal favorite was "So Many Chances," but I found something to like in each and every one of them. What impressed me the most about this collection is the wide range of writing skill Mr. Doerr displays. Each story is presented through a different narrative style, some really unique and innovative. These styles seem uniquely suited to the the stories they tell.
I was a little troubled, however, by the ending of a couple of stories which seemed to just stop rather than to resolve or conclude. I appreciate the open ending idea where the reader may fill in the missing conclusion as he sees fit, but in at least one instance, I didn't feel as if the story had played itself out enough to be stopped. Of course, maybe I just missed the point.
Mr. Doerr went on to write one of my favorite reads of this year, the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See, which is the first work of his I had read and which caused me to pick up "The Shell Collector."
I look forward to finding and reading more gems from this gifted writer.