Our author can’t seem to make up her mind on a fairly important issue: Is she “Mary Rickert” or just plain “M. Rickert”? Under the abbreviated M., she has published a set of haunting short stories considered to be among the very best of fantasy. With The Memory Garden, her first novel, she makes her bid to enter the literary mainstream, enlarging her name and her imaginative landscape in one grand stroke. Best of all, in a brilliant alchemical turn, Rickert transforms the lead-weight problem of indecisive identities into storytelling gold in this bewitching marvel of a book.

“Bewitching.” Yes, there be witches here. Indeed, the opening line of Macbeth might well serve as an epigraph for this novel: “When shall we three meet again?” Here, the three crones are Nan, Mavis and Ruthie, brought together for the first time in 60 years, split apart all those decades ago by a deadly tragedy for which they feel (for which they were) responsible, a horror that has determined the course of their lives.

And there be ghosts aplenty, wandering Nan’s back garden, together with much herbal lore and a child left on a doorstep as in a fairy tale, born with a magic-bestowing caul over her face. Shakespeare applies once more: To be a witch, or not to be? That is the question. Bay (a powerful herb) is the name of that child abandoned on the doorstep. She becomes a young woman racked by doubts and fears about her own identity. Like all adolescent girls, Bay just wants to be “normal.” But as Nan’s charge—and on account of that uncanny veil over her newborn face—that can never be. Bay can see the ghosts in the backyard without even knowing that they’re ghosts, so natural is her supernatural gift. She must confront the burden of her elders’ knowledge, at long last conjured into wisdom.

Bay has to decide who she really is. A witch? Or not a witch? No matter. Not when you have discovered your true place in the world. In this poignant motion of the spirit, Rickert stays alongside her own fictional creation every faltering and courageous step of the way.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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