Many of the best fantasy novels have an aura of mystery that goes beyond signs and portents into the realm of the ineffable. There are mysteries that have answers, and mysteries that are their own answer, and they intertwine. The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert manages this blend beautifully. And heart-breakingly. Spoilers ahead...
Top image: Eric E. Castro/Flickr.
Seriously, The Memory Garden is one of the most intense fantasy books I've read in years, even though relatively little "happens" in this book. Its treatment of magic, and the role of witches in society, reminds me a bit of Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books, but also of some of my favorite literary novels about misfits who invent themselves as they go along. This is one of the rare books that can make a weekend in the country feel like a roller-coaster ride.
Nan is an old woman in the middle of the woods, whom everybody in town believes to be a witch. For years, people have thrown shoes at her house, and she's collected those shoes and planted flowers and herbs in them — which have miraculously grown better in their shallow planters than anybody else's gardens for miles around. Nan's garden and trees seem immune to all the local blights, and her green thumb does seem somewhat supernatural.
One day, someone leaves a baby on Nan's doorstep, in a shoebox. And she winds up adopting the little girl, whom she names Bay. We jump ahead, and Bay is a teenage girl, and Nan is trying to decide how to share a couple of huge secrets about Bay's infancy with her. One of these secrets is supernatural in nature, the other mostly isn't.
In general, Nan fears that she's running out of time to deal with her unfinished business — and not just because she's an elderly woman who could die any time. Nan fears that she'll be arrested for murder at any moment. And she also dreads what will happen if people discover the truth about the death of her friend Eve, who died when they were teenagers. And also, the tragedy that befell Miss Winter, who used to be the town's local witch when Nan was young.
Meanwhile, Bay is dealing with all the usual adolescent issues of trying to figure out who she wants to be. And dealing with bullies at school who prey on her because of her witchy Nana. Even before Bay realizes that she can see ghosts, predict the weather, stay underwater without drowning and maybe heal with baked goods, she's already struggling with being the weird kid in a really, really small town.
And then Nan invites her two childhood friends, Mavis and Ruthie, to come visit for Nan's birthday weekend, and suddenly the house is full of old women with secrets and old resentments. Plus a relative of their dead friend Eve, Stella, somehow shows up just as they're all together. And Howard, who was supposed to drive someone from the airport, also winds up staying for the weekend.
Part of what makes The Memory Garden surprisingly page-turner-y is the way Rickert skillfully sets up expectations, and then gently turns them around like an upside-down cake. You think Nan's friends are her two fellow witches, and they're gathering to figure out what to do about Bay — but neither Mavis nor Ruthie are quite whom you expect. You think you know what happened to Eve, but the truth is actually much sadder and more prosaic. The truth about Miss Winter, the former witch, is also twisted.
I've seldom read a book that's as gentle, and yet as powerful, as The Memory Garden.
One of the great things about this book, too, is that it seems as though it's going to be ambiguous about whether the magic is "real" or not. For the first half of the book, you could easily see Rickert staying cozily in that mainstream-friendly neutral zone where all of the incidents of magic could just be explained away, and most of the witchcraft is just knowing the properties of common herbs. Or just one old lady's weird ideas. But at some point, Rickert throws deniability out the window and fully commits to serious, effective magic, and the book is better for it.
And yet, there is tons and tons of ambiguity in the book, and Rickert wields it like a scalpel. Especially whenever we're seeing from Nan's point of view, it's hard to tell what's real and what's Nan starting to lose her faculties a bit. Sometimes she's not sure if something's a hat or a cake, and it keeps changing every time she looks at it. Sometimes, Nan is convinced that things are going one way, when the reader can mostly tell it's something completely different. You really start to worry that Nan is going to die or lose her marbles, and it also leds the whole thing a feeling of unpredictability and slipperiness that's partly magic, and partly just the way life is.
Rickert's prose is also incredibly lovely, and her keen observations about people's interactions and little subtle moments between people make the whole thing much more emotionally intense. And it makes her occasional discursions about witchcraft that much more powerful. Here's a sample, from when Mavis has come to stay with Nan:
Nan closes the door and turns to smile at Mavis as she comes coughing down the stairs, clutching a pack of cigarettes. She looks startled but returns the smile, a fleeting expression that subtracts a great deal of age from her face. Nan understands. The thing about witches, after all, is that they must learn to wear masks. It's something almost all of them do as a protection against judgment. Even in the midst of this summer morning, Nan shudders at the history of witches: tortured, burned, hanged, or strangled. Horrible things were done to them as a ward against their rumored strength. It is so easy to forget that they were real women. Nan decides not to frighten Mavis (who apparently does still does have her power after all) with words of gratitude, but what harm can there be in a smile, even if Mavis now scowls in response? They walk to the kitchen together, inhaling the wonderful aroma of coffee and pancakes.
At its heart, this is a book about forgiveness, and learning to forgive yourself most of all — some of the most beautiful passages involve Nan discovering that forgiveness hurts, almost like a kind of un-cramping, and that letting your "criminal heart" out of its cage is an arduous challenge. And meanwhile, Bay turns out to face a huge choice about whether to embrace her powers and the scary world that comes with them.
The Memory Garden is an invaluable addition to the canon of books about magic in the real world, and a powerful new piece of evidence that the best works of fantasy are often small and personal — and a small, personal book can become enormous through the power of resonance.