The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr

30/11/02, The Times

A blind man in Kenya collects shells and is able to classify them down to the last details of genus and species by feeling their whorls, spines and folds in his fingers. A young woman can live and dream the inner world of an animal’s mind by touching its freshly dead body. An immigrant girl has her first education in the frangibility of the human heart mediated by fly-fishing in the coastal waters of Maine, while another immigrant, a refugee from Liberia, who cannot escape the unnameable horrors he has witnessed, finds salvation in the clandestine act of burying the hearts of beached whales and growing melons in a strip of land from which he has been expelled. Anthony Doerr’s first book, The Shell Collector, gathers together stories which centre on man’s relationship with nature, on the hinges and joins between inner space and the outer world which lies over and above, indeed, before, civilization. There is a Wordsworthian rapture in his stories, a keen sense of the wide open spaces of our environing world and how we relate to everything else which shares the natural world with us.

This is no tree-hugging environmentalist’s cri de coeur. Doerr has positioned himself in a literary tradition which takes in Thoreau and Wordsworth on one hand and Hemingway and Patrick White on the other. The stories luminesce and sing: they tell the oldest of all stories, perhaps the only story there is – how we attempt to make a habitus of the world. Doerr strips his humans of culture and civilization and whittles them down, not in the nihilistic mode in which Lear is reduced to a bare, forked animal, but in more benign ways, to align them with larger forces, say of rain, or river, or the bitter Montana midwinter or migration of geese. Naima, a young Tanzanian woman who embodies some force of nature, like the rushing of wind or the swift onrush of water, feels her entire soul ebbing out of her in Ohio. Transplanted from her natural environment, she learns “that in her life everything – health, happiness, even love – was subject to the landscape; the weathers of the world were inseparable from the weathers of her soul”. In “The Caretaker”, an almost unbearably moving story of exile and loss, Joseph’s redemption and rebirth are initiated by the melons which the deaf-mute Belle brings to him in hospital.

The stories are no facile or simplistic resuscitation of that old war-horse, the pathetic fallacy. Doerr is doing nothing less than measuring, in his exquisitely calibrated sentences, the distance the civilizing process has brought us from nature. And his nature is not pink flamingoes in the flaming sunset either: it’s a sentient, all-witnessing, unchanging, indifferent force which was before us and will continue long after we as a race have ceased to be. What gives Doerr’s stories their unique charge is the way he uses land and seascape and the natural world in his characters’ negotiations of the tricky terrains of their own hearts and souls. It moves beyond metaphor to the numinous.

But all this would have been nothing had it not been delivered in the poetry of Doerr’s prose. I can think of very few authors who can put together a sentence with such ecstasy, whose words sing with such music, such sheer rapture at what they embody. If very occasionally they veer towards that quicksand which beckons all first books, that of Consistently Beautiful Sentences, it is not out of exhibitionism but generosity: he wants his reader too to share in the mystery and grace of a mollusc or an eddying leaf on the surface of an autumn stream.