The Memory Garden, by M. Rickert

The Memory Garden, by M. Rickert
Publisher: Sourcebook Landmarks
ASIN: B00HUTVFYE
304 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

There is something magical in stories that focus on the relationship between the young (particularly in the tween and teen years) and the elderly. The traumas and uncertainties in the lives of the teen find a certain solace in the wizened eccentricities of the elder. The elderly have gotten through that period of their lives, but are not like the other adults. They are no longer in their productive prime and they are in another transition stage of our existence, one even more uncertain and potentially traumatic. From the other side, the connection with the vibrancy of youth seems to magically transform the elderly, as they recall with fondness moments of their own history, and perhaps reconsider past events that were more dark and difficult to confront in their earlier years. With “The Memory Garden”, M. Rickert explores these themes of the young connecting with the old through one teenager (Bay) and three older women, her adopted guardian (Nan) and two of Nan’s childhood friends, who Nan hasn’t had contact with in years (Ruthie and Mavis).

I know Mary Rickert’s name from her stories that have appeared in “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”, and it is always a joy to see novels appear from authors who I fondly recall from those pages. Like her stories, “The Memory Garden” is written in a delicate, understated manner. Bright, lush, and full of life on the surface, the lives (and deaths) in the novel hide dark matters underneath. Nicely, these serious (and unfortunately very realistic, not fantastic) horrors are included perfectly, neither downplayed nor exploited.

Rickert’s writing is beautiful, full of rich, sense-evocative elements. Most overtly, chapters are built around descriptions (definitions) of particular plants that fit into the theme or events of that given chapter. But throughout the book Rickert is able to fully immerse the reader in this fairy-tale like world with its sights, smells, feelings, and tastes. The highlight of the novel in this respect comes at a high point of the narrative arc as Ruthie concocts a lavish feast for the others built around edible flowers.

Although a couple of secondary characters are not strongly developed and largely fulfill plot-related purposes, the major characters of the novel – Bay and the three elder women – are superbly written, realistic women with personalities each unique and fitting for their ages and experiences. Given the three older ladies, my mind happened to go immediately to “The Golden Girls”. Indeed, each of the women had aspects to their personalities that I could map to Dorothy, Blanche, or Rose. (With Ruthie for instance reminding me often of Rose with here naive nature, to the point where my mind would read “Ruthie” as “Rose”). However, these personalities didn’t line up perfectly, and as the novel progressed, these elderly characters also changed significantly, and the reader learns that they each are far more than they show at first sight. These characters don’t just have secrets that get revealed, Rickert is able to show how they hold more of themselves inside than just some historical events. They keep emotions and personalities hidden due to their experiences, which in turn inform how they are interacting with Bay and the crises she faces.

The plot is more firmly in the ground of fantasy than the more agnostic ‘fantasy realism’, but it should nonetheless be an easy fantasy pill to swallow for general fiction readers. The plot of the novel is slow-moving, as well as the character development. Coupled with its understated style overall, it is not the most ‘engaging’ novel from the onset, requiring patience and lingering appreciation for the quiet beauty of the text as things slowly unfold. With the complex conclusion to it all, I can’t be remotely disappointed with the novel as a whole. Though I look forward to future novels from Rickert, I really hope to keep seeing “M. Rickert” in the table of contents in F&SF in the future still too.

Five Stars out of Five

The Johnstown Girls, by Kathleen George

The Johnstown Girls, by Kathleen George
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
ASIN: B00J2D60W8
348 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2014
Source: NetGalley

Coming from Pennsylvania (even the other side of the state) I’m familiar with the Johnstown Flood. This entered heavily into my decision to request the novel; in addition its concept itself seemed promising.

Kathleen George seems known for her mystery/crime genre writing, so this is a departure from her normal literary pool. “The Johnstown Girls” is an exploration of three female protagonists, linked together through a shared region of birth. Set in part in the present, Nina returns to her hometown with her boyfriend Ben, a fellow newspaper reporter doing a feature on the anniversary of the catastrophic Johnstown flood. Together they interview Ellen, one of the last surviving flood survivors and learn of the mysterious loss of her sister May (Anna). We the reader then are shown that the sister has survived, with few memories of the disaster, no knowledge of her true origins and relations. Despite the literary shift then, this still has elements of crime and mystery in minor ways, displaying George’s touch and appreciation for the genre.

For the elderly Ellen and May/Anna, the narrative is split between present day and recollections of the past from their separation at the flood through the decades following. The novel is therefore historical in its backdrop and link between past and present narratives. Leading similar, but quite distinct lives of circumstance, Ellen and Mary/Anna display a shared kindness and intelligence, and a progressive independence that make them strong and decisive characters. They thereby reflect an optimistic example born from experience that mirrors Nina’s precarious situation in her own life still relatively early in progress, trying to make a relationship with Ben work. This contrast is evident to the reader between Nina and either sister, though to Nina only in regards to Ellen who she has met, driving her to help and determine the truth of what happened to May/Anna those many years ago and where she is now.

This overall theme of the story works tremendously well. The trio of female protagonists are fascinating, complex, and touchingly real. The verisimilitude of character, the contrast between the elder sisters’ optimistic certitude and Nina’s uncertain fears make the relations in the novel work emotionally, bright without any false rosy perfection. This authenticity is helped by the historical framework of the flood and the photos of real average people who lived through the event that George peppers between chapters.

Despite these strengths there are aspects to “The Johnstown Girls” that seriously detract from it. The primary difficulty is the Ben-Nina relationship. Though it complements/contrasts the relationships and experiences of the elder sisters, this doesn’t crystallize until the end. For much of the novel the scenes between Ben and Nina seem superfluous, particularly when extending to Ben’s family. Some of these portions could be left out probably, but at the very least the organization of the novel between multiple protagonists/relations across two times could have had connections strengthened via reorganization. Secondly, to augment the ‘historical’ nature of the novel, ‘copies’ of Ben’s articles are reproduced, largely repeating information already conveyed in the main narrative, or revealing information that could be better revealed through character interactions.

The regional familiarity of this novel for certain readers and an interest in the Johnstown flood make this a worthwhile read. For those that really appreciate novels with strong female characters and the travails of realistic relationships you will likely enjoy this a great deal, enough to look past the imperfections of the novel’s construction, much as the situation is in human interactions.

Three-and-a-Half Stars out of Five