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Book Review

Matters of Nature and the Heart Intertwine in Remarkable Debut

January 15, 2002|BERNADETTE MURPHY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THE SHELL COLLECTOR

Stories

By Anthony Doerr

Scribner

224 pages; $23

*

The short story is a dicey form for even the most experienced fiction writer. Unlike a novel, where the author has room to take off on tangents or introduce ideas that may languish with little damage to the narrative whole, the short story requires perfect alignment between character and plot, scene and dialogue; one wrong move on the author's part and the entire work collapses. Though young writers often work in the form as a proving ground, the difficulties in executing a truly wonderful short story are many.

This appreciation for the form's difficulty is what makes "The Shell Collector," a show-stopping debut by 28-year-old Anthony Doerr, so remarkable. His stories, filled with oddball characters, extreme physical settings, splintered alliances and the incessant ache of human sadness, is as close to faultless as any writer--young or vastly experienced--could wish for.

Drawing on a rich background in biology, hunting, oceanography and fly-fishing, Doerr shows uncommon poise as he depicts the human condition in many natural--and some not-so-natural--settings. He conjures communities from the suburbs of Ohio to the wilds of Tanzania, from war-ravaged villages in Liberia to a playground for the wealthy on the Oregon coast, imbuing each tale with uncommonly sharp writing and an incisive use of metaphor.

The title story tells of an aged blind man living alone in a thatch-roofed hut on the coast of Kenya who spends his days collecting shells. By accident, he discovers that a snail known to be potently poisonous and found in a particular type of cone shell may have curative properties in treating a virulent form of malaria.

The discovery thrusts him into the international spotlight and onto a road he'd rather not travel. Forced by nearby villagers to treat a young girl with the snail, the shell collector imagines "in acute detail, the snail's translucent proboscis as it slipped free of the siphonal canal, the quills of its teeth probing her skin, the venom spilling into her." That which provides healing and ecstasy for one, Doerr reminds us, can be poison to another.

"For a Long Time This Was Griselda's Story" is the tale of two sisters who live disparate lives: Griselda travels the globe in her glamorous role as the onstage assistant to her husband, a sideshow metal-eater, sending home postcards and letters, while dumpy Rosemary remains in Idaho, caring for their mother, dreaming of the life she'd missed, " ... mouthing the names on the stamps and postcards: Molokai, Belo Horizonte, Kinabalu, Damascus, Samara, Florence." When Griselda and the metal-eater return to town for a performance, Rosemary's reunion with her sister makes for a spectacle not easily forgotten.

The strongest tale of the collection, "The Hunter's Wife," depicts the reunion of an estranged couple after 20 years and is filled with their back story. Here is Doerr at his finest, writing with beauty and subtlety: "In a wind-polished bend they came upon a dead heron frozen by its ankles into the ice," Doerr writes of the couple's early winters braving the wilds of Montana. "It had tried to hack itself out, hammering with its beak first at the ice entombing its feet and then at its own thin scaly legs. When it finally died, it died upright, wings folded back, beak parted in some final, desperate cry, legs rooted like twin reeds in the ice."

She, as a young magician's assistant, finds an abiding sense of aliveness in the depths of this snowy, life-encroaching world. With the hunter's guidance, she also discovers a unique gift: By touch, she can communicate with animal spirits, especially those newly dead. Anyone who touches her while she's touching the animal will feel and know what she knows.

The hunter, in this fable about the vicissitudes of married life, is the opposite. He savors spring and fall, finding himself most alive while fishing or hunting. His work involves the taking of life; hers is to retrieve it. Her every action challenges his and eventually rends the delicate fabric of their union.

Reminiscent of Annie Proulx's wonderful "Close Range: Wyoming Stories" and Andrea Barrett's "Ship Fever," Doerr's work combines scientific understanding with narrative deftness. The traits he brings to the work--an incredible eye for detail, a willingness to let the tales unfold slowly and an utter lack of irony--are those seldom seen in young writers.

"The Shell Collector" illuminates both the riotous dangers of the natural world and the rocky terrain of the human heart, thrusting us into environments we can only hope to control.

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