Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

"The Shell Collector" by Anthony Doerr (flamingo, 2003)

I wasn't so impressed by "The Shell Collector" though there were signs of promise. I've seen "The Hunter's Wife" before. I still like it. As early as paragraph 2 the style becomes clear

Now it was dark. The airplane descended over Chicago, its galaxy of electric lights, the vast neighborhoods coming clearer as the plane glided toward the airport - streetlights, headlights, stacks of buildings, ice rinks, a truck turning at a stoplight, scraps of snow atop a warehouse and winking antennae on faraway hills, finally the long converging parallels of blue runway lights, and they were down

Later the main character watches a magic show through a window -

She was beautiful to him in a way that nothing else had ever been beautiful. Snow blew down his collar and drifted around his boots. The wind had fallen off but the snow came hard and still the hunter stood riveted at the window. After some time the magician rejoined the severed box halves, unfastened the buckles, and fluttered his wand, and she was whole again. She climbed out of the box and curtsied in the glittering slit-legged dress. She smiled as if it were the Resurrection itself.
Then the storm brought down a pine tree in front of the courthouse and the power winked out, streetlight by streetlight, all over town. Before she could move, before ushers began escorting the crowd out with flashlights, the hunter was slinking into the hall, making for the stage, calling for her.

There's lyricism, and descriptions that expand into duration - "streetlight by streetlight". Rich and evocative or "death by chocolate"? I'd say rich. It's intense about moments and manages to cover memories of a relationship in the course of a formal event.

"So many chances", about a 14 y.o. girl whose family moves to the sea, has clipped, staccato sections

Then she sees the fisherman. Just to her left. Wading. As if he came from nowhere. From nothing. From the sea itself.
She watches him. Feels lucky to watch. The world peeled back and left with only this vision. This silent flying wizardry. The rod seems an extension of his arm, an extra and perfect appendage, his shoulder pivoting, his bare brown chest, his legs tapering to calves buried in the sea. So this is Maine, this is how it can be, she thinks. This fisherman. This grace.

At times the lyricism is channelled through the girl, but even so, it's a bit much

In the morning she drags her mother to the sea by the wrist. To confront her with the sea dressed in fog. To show her that this place is not empty. Wings of mist drag through the treetops. The fog shreds everywhere; flashes of pure blue wink above. The sea undressing. A wide-brimmed hat crammed over her mother's hair. Gulls turn in a high noisy wheel above the gliding tide. Cormorants dive for breakfast.

"For a Long Time This Was Griselda's Story" has an interesting set-piece (the performance) but not much else. "July Fourth" is fun, but that's all. In "The Caretaker" the description of how he cares for his garden is as meticulous as that of him burying hearts, and as believable. But if his garden is too tidy it will be discovered, and so will he. There's sign language, and the language of whales. Tenderness and ruthlessness - my second favourite storyin the book. "A Tangle by the Rapid River" is too light, yet it has the heaviest sentence - The pocked and mudded logging roads - four unmarked turns, fording a stone-choked creek and the truck gurgling, warning, pressing over slick clay, beneath the clear-cut hillsides, stacks of limbless birch in bound rolls on the road flanks and hacked from the dim tangle of woods, savage mudferns and rust-stalked blackberry (p.176). "Mkondo" was rather plain too.

Lots of snow, fishing, and women in touch with nature, of lone males lost in a wilderness. Lots of descriptive lists, e.g. -

  • Ohio: bleak weather impended over the city like a shroud. Curtains of haze washed out the light; helicopters shuttled endlessly overhead; buses groaned through the streets like dying beasts (p.195)
  • the museum was not what she expected - cracked granite staircases, mounted mammals and bones on display, dioramas where plastic-eyed cavemen bent over plaster cookfires (p.196).

Other reviews

  • Alfred Hickling (Guardian) (The highlight, however, is the concluding story, "Mkondo", which draws together all of Doerr's themes of geographical displacement, disappointed love and lack of spiritual fulfilment. ...Whether he can realise his ambition and sustain these themes over a larger span remains to be seen, but for now he stands unchallenged as a great American malacologist. )
  • Kirkus Review (But even this excellent story is dwarfed by “The Caretaker,” ... This is one of the great contemporary stories)
  • Yale Review of Books (Listing allows Doerr to convey a large amount of information in a small space or to describe years in a few instants. It is the device on which many of these stories hinge: an economy of words used to portray the passing of time. Doerr can describe intervening years in a sentence or two and then move ahead to focus on a particularly important moment in paragraphs of vivid detail. ... Since he deals with such a disparate set of locations and stories, it is odd that Doerr seems to recycle imagery throughout the collection ... Another of Doerr’s obsessions is intestines, and in particular the words “viscera” and “eviscerate,” which appear repeatedly throughout the collection. ... Even if its other stories were not breathtaking and beautiful, which they are, and even if its characters did not introduce the reader to a host of captivating lives, which they do, The Shell Collector would be valuable for its longest and most ambitious story, “The Caretaker.”)
  • Margaret Gunning ("For A Long Time This was Griselda's Story" is a rather silly and superficial yarn ... This is not the only clanger. "July Fourth," about a fishing contest between Americans and Brits, never rises above the level of glib entertainment. Similarly, "A Tangle by the Rapid River" (yet another fishing story, about an old man cheating on his wife) lacks real depth, coming across as empty writer's card tricks. ... the last story ,"Mkondo," misses the mark due to sheer repetition of themes. ... Given his enormous potential as a fiction writer and his relative youth, it seems strange and a bit disturbing that in a collection of only eight stories, Doerr is already repeating himself.)
  • Leah Falk (the gorgeousness of “The Caretaker” is that ravaged maps of both the human world and the human mind don’t inspire pity or relief at our better lot, but bring us closer to a strange reality that isn’t so alternate at all, that suddenly doesn’t seem so far from us.)

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