The Shell Collector: Stories – Anthony Doerr
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.
Review: If I was forced to make a list of my all-time favorite books, All the Light We Cannot See would probably be on it. Since I love that giant novel so much, I wondered what Anthony Doerr could do with a short story collection. The Shell Collector was published over a decade before All the Light We Cannot See, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I was (mostly) impressed. These world-spanning stories are beautifully written. They take place on beaches and mountains; in sunny Africa and snowy Lapland; in rivers and forests. Each setting is so precisely described that the reader can almost feel the fictional weather. An astounding amount of research must have gone into these stories.
Even though the settings are varied, the stories deal with similar topics. They’re about small mistakes that have dire consequences. The characters are all struggling to survive in a world that’s bigger and more powerful than they’ll ever be.
“Studying ice crystals as a graduate student, he eventually found the basic design (equilateral, equiangled hexagon) so icily repeated, so unerringly conforming, that he couldn't help but shudder: Beneath the splendor—the filigreed blossoms, the microscopic stars—was a ghastly inevitability; crystals could not escape their embedded blueprints any more than humans could. Everything hewed to a rigidity of pattern, the certainty of death.” – The Shell Collector
I know that this is a story collection, and that stories in a collection usually deal with similar topics, but most of the stories in this book are too similar for my liking. For example, many of them involve fishing. The only thing more boring than watching people fish is reading about people fishing.
Since most of the stories blurred together in my mind, there are only two that really stand out for me:
The title story “The Shell Collector” has everything I love in a short story. An unusual setting, an unusual protagonist, and a whole lot of secrets. It’s about a blind scientist and his guide dog who live in a hut on the coast of Kenya. They spend their days finding and cataloging different kinds of seashells. One day, the scientist stumbles across a snail that is thought to be poisonous. He inadvertently discovers that the snail’s venom may actually have healing properties. When news of the healing snail becomes public, chaos ensues.
“The shell collector was scrubbing limpets at his sink when he heard the water taxi come scraping over the reef. He cringed to hear it—its hull grinding the calices of finger corals and the tiny tubes of pipe organ corals, tearing the flower and fern shapes of soft corals, and damaging shells too: punching holes in olives and murexes and spiny whelks, in Hydatina physis and Turris babylonia. It was not the first time people tried to seek him out.” – The Shell Collector
My other favorite story is “The Caretaker.” A refugee from Liberia ends up in the US after losing his home and family. He accepts a job as a caretaker in a remote lodge, but he’s unable to perform his caretaker duties. He gets fired. Since he can’t get another job, he moves into the woods near the lodge and tries to rebuild his life from nothing. This story is realistic. It pisses me off when people are hateful and judgmental toward refugees. Most people have no idea what a refugee has lived through.
“‘It’s an issue of duty.’ Her voice tremors; inside, he can see, she’s raging. ‘I told him not to hire you. I told him what good is it hiring someone who runs from his country at the first sign of trouble? He won’t know duty, responsibility. He won’t be able to understand it. And now look.’” – The Shell Collector
TL;DR: Not as good as All The Light We Cannot See, but readers who love nature (and fishing) would probably enjoy this collection.