Anthony Doerr’s debut short story collection, "The Shell Collector," is both strange and wonderful.
Published in 2002, the stories are worth revisiting and savoring now. Doerr’s immersive, poetic language coupled with his extraordinary storytelling cadence create a world of characters deeply connected and influenced by the natural world around them.
"The Shell Collector" is a foray into magical realism. This now ambiguous genre originated in Latin America as a movement led by authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges. Magical realism, broadly speaking, refers to texts that include the surreal, the fantastical and the supernatural as story elements in an otherwise fully realistic piece of fiction.
Magical realist fiction seamlessly blurs reality and the fantastic in a way that enriches the text with complex metaphor, a type of poeticism and literary tradition.
Doerr is a master at this.
Doerr’s voice seems to lull readers into his narratives. The cadence of his writing and the scarcity of dialogue make the text read as if it’s being relayed by a second hand storyteller. It’s part of the reason the magical realism in the stories work so well; it evokes the sense of fable or myth. It primes the reader for the surrealism to come.
The stories cover a range of diverse characters and span across continents, taking place on the coast of Africa, in Europe and in the continental U.S. But they’re all linked by the power of nature rendered as the fantastic in each story.
There’s also a theme of outdoorsmanship that carries over from story to story. Though all are superb in their own right, “The Hunter’s Wife” is particularly noteworthy. In it, a young woman quits her job as a magician’s assistant and marries a hunter. Upon settling into the isolation of her new husband’s home in the Montana wilderness, the woman discovers her supernatural ability to connect with the souls of animals, to feel their pain and to hear their thoughts.
The progression of the relationship between the hunter and his wife is deeply moving and tragically beautiful. It prompts reflection on the dynamic of hunted and hunter, of predator and prey and intrinsic strength.
To read each story in "The Shell Collector" is to collect moments of Doerr’s fantastical universe as if one were collecting shells on a beach. Each is emblematic and worthy in its own right, but together "The Shell Collector" is a masterpiece.
Whether read chapter by chapter or all at once, Doerr’s "The Shell Collector" will revitalize your reading with its brilliance and beauty.