The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert might be a début novel, but anyone who has read Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine in recent years, or keeps in touch with the plethora of Years Best anthologies, will be aware of M. Rickert’s quirky, unsettling, brilliant short fiction. For a number of her fans, myself included, the publication of her first novel is something to cheer about.
Unfortunately the novel is rubbish —
— I’m kidding, it’s fantastic. It’s so good that I’m a little sad the book hasn’t garnered more award attention, though I’m pleased that the Locus voters, in their wisdom, nominated The Memory Garden in the best First Novel category. Those who did should pat themselves on the back.
While Rickert never tells us where the novel is set, most of the action takes place in an old house in the woods owned by Nan, a woman in her seventies who everyone in town thinks is a witch. Fifteen years before the opening of the novel, Nan opens her front door to find a baby in a box, newly born with a caul over her little face. Although in her mid 60s, Nan adopts the baby and names her Bay. While Bay has always known how Nan found her, it’s only when she celebrates her fifteenth birthday that Nan reveals the caul that covered Bay’s face and her belief that Bay is a witch.
This revelation, not surprisingly, puts a strain on their relationship. The word “witch” is a pejorative, an insult, a curse and Bay refuses to accept that as she was born with a caul she can accurately predict the weather and speak to ghosts. Seeking assistance, Nan invites over two friends for the weekend, Ruthie and Mavis. This is the first time these friends have been together in more than fifty years, separated by the tragic death of their friend Eve.
For a novel that’s reasonably short and set mostly in the one locale, there’s allot of story to peel away. We have questions about how and why Eve died. Who the mysterious Mrs Winters is. Whether Bay is actually a witch. What secrets both Mavis and Ruthie are keeping from Nan. What’s marvellous is how Rickert oh so subtlety reveals the truth about each of the characters, reveals the tragedy of Eve, the influence of Miss Winters, the coming of age of Bay. And she does this without relying on lengthy flashbacks. Yes the past is revisited, specifically the lead up to Eve’s horrible death, but each of these flashbacks is short, almost abrupt. Because The Memory Garden is focussed more on dealing with the past than dwelling on it.
It’s also a novel that’s very much about motherhood and the tension between letting your child go and trying to protect her from all that might harm her. For Nan it’s this constant awareness of her own fragility and that suddenly Bay might find herself alone. For Bay, it’s about making her own decisions, forging her own path, while knowing that her time with Nan is limited. Rickert excels in teasing out this tension while avoiding the angst and melodrama that might come with it. There’s no screaming matches, broken crockery or slamming of doors. Just the realisation of a complicated and yet loving relationship between mother and daughter.
In the Author’s Note at the conclusion of the novel, Rickert explains that when she would describe the novel to other people she wouldn’t mention that it featured “witches.” She felt that the very word “seem[ed] to diminish rather than inform.” But as Rickert reflects, that’s actually the point. Not that witches have been getting bad press for centuries – which they have been – but how mainstream society diminishes the role of older women. Rickert’s intent, other than to recast the term witch in a more positive light, is to recognise that older woman still have a voice, especially when it comes to dealing with loss and pain and death.
With its elegant, beautiful prose and its engaging, believable characters, and its themes about loss, guilt, death, magic and motherhood,The Memory Garden is one of the best genre novels published in 2014.