MARY RICKERT'S debut novel begins like a sequel to Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, then seems like it might become a feminized version of Peter Straub's Ghost Story, then for a moment seems awfully twee — and then, three-quarters of the way through, it blossoms into something rich and strange.
The writer formerly known as M. Rickert is uniquely capable of such narrative legerdemain. For more than a decade now, Rickert has published some of the most beguiling, complex, and satisfying short fiction within the fields of science fiction and fantasy (collected in Map of Dreams and Holiday). It’s a body of work that deserves a much wider audience than it has received. Rickert has proved herself to be not just a storyteller, but a storyteller fundamentally concerned with the nature of storytelling itself: its power, its illusions, its ethics. Stories engage us, entertain us, teach us; but they also lie to us and help us to lie.
Significant challenges daunt a sympathetic reviewer of Rickert's work, because pointing out details risks giving away the game and lessening the magic for a first reading. I will proceed with caution, but also a warning: the best way to read this book may be to know nothing about it.
The Memory Garden begins as the tale of a witch and her foundling: the elderly Nan and the teenaged Bay, who was left as an infant in a shoebox on Nan's porch. Though Bay is a foundling, Nan may not really be a witch, just an eccentric old lady around whom rumors have sprouted. The novel alternates between Nan's point of view and Bay’s, and Nan’s perspective is conjured especially artfully. Nan has a secret, some dark event in the past, something to do with the death of a young woman named Eve, but Nan works hard not to think of it, and we the readers are left to wonder and guess, watching as Nan lets bits of memory slip past her guard.
Early in the book, one of the main characters, now seventy-eight years old, remembers being a child and going with friends to a magic show, then encountering the magician on their walk home. She remembers trying to reconcile enchantment and the real world, trying to figure out where power comes from. The magician suggests his power comes from the moon, and his finger touches the lips of one of the little girls in a gesture that is both mysterious and unsettling. Or perhaps it means something else, something lost to time, something unremembered. This is but the first of many times that magic, memory, and menace will intertwine in the novel's mysteries, until by the time they are resolved and clarified, the resolution feels beside the point, because, as we are told on page six: “Life is what you remember.” (So, too, is a novel.)
Our readerly guessing is key to the novel’s powerful effect in the later chapters, chapters for which the best analogy might be a theatrical routine where the revelation of a trick’s mechanics is part of a more wondrous illusion. Throughout the novel, characters build assumptions from scraps of information, and over time these assumptions foster stories, the stories harden into memories the characters believe to be true, and the memories influence actions. The process of reading any well-wrought narrative is similar: we extrapolate from strategic details, we make assumptions about characters and future events based on foreshadowing, hints, and glimpses, and we narrowly anticipate twists of plot and circumstance.
Those narrative disclosure of surprises and suspense get complicated when more characters enter the story. The mystery of Nan’s past is shared by her childhood friends Ruthie and Mavis, but the three have not been in touch since shortly after Eve's death. For reasons that we (and they) don’t know until later, Nan chooses to invite them to her house after half a century of silence and estrangement. They arrive, as do a couple of other unexpected guests, and, apparently, a few ghosts. Mostly, they chat with each other, cook meals, nap, admire Nan's gardening. The plot, such as it is, may feel a bit rudderless, the withholding of information infuriating, the characters’ eccentricities too calculated and cute. We are in the hands of an adept storyteller, though; and the aforementioned twee staginess is all for a purpose. We know that there is a tremendous subtext to everyone’s interactions, but the substance of that subtext — one that recontextualizes everything that came before, revealing performances upon performances and whole lifetimes of misperception — is not revealed until the climax of the novel, at which time any potential for melodrama has leached out of it, and instead we are left to assess the mistakes and myths that produced tragedy and wasted lives.
Rickert keeps the primary, present-tense action of the novel to a limited time and place (a few days at Nan’s house), with a small group of characters, almost as if it’s a play attempting to stick to the classical unities. This structure allows the story considerable focus and enhances the importance of memory to the narrative. Lacking any authoritative knowledge of the past’s facts, we must rely on the character’s memories (and their presentation of those memories) for our understanding of the meaning of present-day events. Further, the emphasis on the present forces our knowledge of the past events to be incomplete and mysterious through the majority of the book’s pages, so that by the time we learn the facts (or as much of them as the characters themselves know), we have already gone through the experience of guessing at the possibilities and building various stories in our own mind, stories built from our memory of other stories. The effect is to increase empathy for the characters in a way that we might not have were their tales presented to us more openly, straightforwardly, mercilessly. We, after all, have made the same sorts of associations and assumptions that they have. We, too, have been mistaken. And who are we to judge?
Most of the mysteries have answers by the end, and much (though not all) of the magic can be explained away. Words that began as myth return to reality, but their mythic caul remains. Nan is a witch yes, and no, and yes again, for meaning is as slippery as memory. Life, it turns out, is not just what you remember, but how.
The Memory Garden could have ended on a note of sadness and regret, for sadness and regret infuse the later chapters, but Rickert chooses a path more ambiguous and subtle, both touching and profound. This is a novel haunted by mortality — with people who died young, with people now old and dying, with ghosts. But it is often a joyful novel, a novel of life, forgiveness, and good meals with friends and strangers. Instead of death, it ends with grace, and so its ending ennobles us, the onlookers who have joined in the journey of storytelling, who have been at times misdirected and misled by our inclinations, just as the characters themselves have been. In the final pages we join those characters, united by the snow falling faintly through the novel’s universe and faintly falling across our memory of its masterful pages.