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'The Memory Garden' Grows With Grace And Tenderness

Back in the far distant past we now call The '90s, I read Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic, almost immediately after having watched the film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. I enjoyed both, managing the difficult trick of experiencing them as separate entities rather than flawed versions of each other. But while admiring Hoffman's New England and sighing for the Owens family's amazing kitchen, I was keenly focused on the sisters' aunts, with their wild hair and witchy wisdom. Their missing stories itched at me. They seemed so fascinating, these women who had grown old together without men, who lived together and raised children together, who were powerful and wise. I wanted their memories too, their thoughts and desires.

I was happily reminded of them while reading Mary Rickert's The Memory Garden, because while she works in a sensuous magical-realist style reminiscent of Hoffman, Rickert's book features elderly women as protagonists and treats them with tenderness and grace.

The Memory Garden is partly the story of Bay, a young girl born with a caul over her face, growing up in a witch's house after having been abandoned on her doorstep in a shoe box. But it is mostly the story of Nan, the old woman who raises her, and Nan's navigation of her own past and future over the course of a three-day visit from two estranged childhood friends. Her past takes the form of these friends, their secret tragedy and several ghosts; her future is Bay, whose caul-draped birth is proof against drowning, a promise of healing, and the power to see the ghosts of whose presence Nan is only dimly aware. Together they cope with unexpected visitors, furtive witchcraft and a Flower Feast so deliciously described I actually spent time online seeing if I could possibly re-create it.

This is a book that circles its central mysteries slowly, with a diffuse and sometimes distracted air; character interactions are often vague and delicate as spider web, focused on effusions of feeling resulting from small gestures and sharp words. But it eventually becomes apparent that this distraction is a mode of composition; there is a mimicking in this of the processes of memory and gardens both, how memory distorts tiny events into enormous sensation, and what immensity can grow from seeds. What it lacks in linearity it more than makes up for in atmosphere and emotion.

Indeed, Nan's garden is itself a character: The book's sections are headed by descriptions of different plants and flowers, along with their medicinal uses and (often contradictory) folkloric associations. Seeded through the book like grace notes, these headings made me feel like I was, in fact, walking through Nan's garden. Each flower is a herald of things to come or themes to be explored, but also emblematic of the multitudes people contain, the way they are more than the sum of their actions and experiences.

While the shifting tenses confused me at first, I came to appreciate the way Nan inhabits her memories, moving seamlessly from a contemplation of her worn and aching feet to a recollection of stepping lightly, from a scent of salt on the air to a plunge into depression. I loved that Nan's perspective encompasses her youth, friendship and motherhood all at once, instead of setting them up as discrete categories to pass out of and into; in stark and welcome contrast to many maiden-mother-crone stories, her girlhood is not shed upon admittance into adulthood, but contained within it. Mourning and celebration mix as freely as Nan's thoughts, as the narrative sways from creeping threat to painful beauty in time to the garden's floral clock. The descriptions of food, kitchen witchery and the tremendous affective powers of good cooking were all wonderfully done, and the characters were all people I was — if you'll pardon the pun — rooting for, even when they seemed to be acting against each other.

The Memory Garden is a lovely book of women, friendship, sadness and healing, and it is genuinely uplifting. Like the garden of its title, this is a book to take in slowly, to spend time in, to wander through; you'll likely find yourselves the better for it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amal El-Mohtar