M. Rickert is another author who makes striking use of mythological materials in fantasies that tend toward the dark end of the spectrum, and given that she's been publishing only since 1999 it's remarkable that she's developed such a consistent, self-assured, yet thoroughly unpredictable voice. Her first collection, Map of Dreams, begins and ends with powerfully disturbing Persephone-like tales of mothers whose daughters have been killed in horrible circumstances, and yet another mother who lost a daughter is the central figure in a third story. In each case, the guilt-ridden mother develops a kind of obsessive derangement that is profoundly unsettling to those around her, but in each case the apparent derangement leads toward some sort of revelation or accommodation ("healing" would be far too wimpy a word for the scarred worlds Rickert maps out here). In the long opening novella "Map of Dreams," original to this collection, the mother's name is Annie Merchant, whose six-year-old daughter is gunned down by a crazed sniper on a New York street corner. Another of the sniper's victims is the physicist wife of a famous writer, and when Annie hears the bereaved writer deliver a somewhat confused lecture about his wife's work in quantum theory, and its implication that she might still live in some different timelike curve, Annie grows obsessed with the notion that she might herself escape the timestream to find her daughter. As her life falls apart around her, she harasses the writer and even tracks him down to a remote part of Australia, where she's convinced he's found the secret of time travel. But what has appeared until now to be a painfully direct story of a mother unhinged by grief shifts instead into a more complex tale involving aboriginal dreamtime and malleable timelines: aided by an artist friend of the writer and by allies from different periods of Australian history, Annie finds herself back in New York just before the shooting, facing a classic grandfather paradox which nevertheless is handled with enough originality and insight to bring the tale to a startling, but not comfortable, solution.
Interestingly, Rickert has chosen to use this opening tale as a means of organizing the remaining stories into a thematic suite reminiscent of [Elizabeth] Hand's muse-meditations, but on a larger and looser scale. Following "Map of Dreams," we come upon an "Introduction" to the remaining stories written by Annie Merchant herself, who reappears as a narrative voice in later bridge passages as well. These thirteen remaining stories are organized into sections titled "Dreams," "Nightmares," "Waking," and "Rising." "Dreams" begins with another myth variation, "Leda," a modern-dress version of Leda and the swan told in the alternating voices of the husband and Leda herself, with occasional interpolations from news headlines ("Woman Lays Egg!"). Offbeat and funny, it's a good example of how Rickert can manipulate narrative voices to reveal more than they say, but not nearly as strong an example as "Cold Fires," which may well be the most remarkable story in a remarkable collection. A man and woman isolated in a house during a spectacularly cold winter decide to tell each other stories, the woman's about a seafaring ancestor who brought home a witch-like strawberry woman and made a fortune in strawberries, only to see his mysterious wife disappear one day; the man's concerning a time he spent years earlier curating a remote art museum whose founder had obsessively and amateurishly painted portraits of the woman he loved, somehow producing one true masterpiece of devotion. The counterpoint of these two disparate tales of abandonment and devotion tell us all we need to know about the two unnamed narrators, and creates their story as well. The other major story in this section, "Angel Face," is an acutely realized portrait of a rural community that has made a shrine out of a barn where a local farm woman regularly has visions of the Virgin.
Lest we get the impression that Rickert is all about myths and dreams, the section titled "Nightmares" takes on a decidedly contemporary feel, including two of her best-known stories (by virtue of having been selected for year's best anthologies). "Bread and Bombs" takes on a Shirley Jackson-like flavor by beginning with a sunny town where the fourth-graders have just started summer vacation, but quickly turns ominous as we realize this is a post-terrorist world of continuous war in which air travel is a distant memory and refugee neighbors (they're given the almost comically untraceable name Manmensvitzender) are suspect; listening to their elders, the kids conspire to commit a horrendous act. "Anyway" gains even greater immediacy by depicting a family whose women have long believed that, by using magical bloodstones, a mother can choose to end all wars by sending her own son to die in the current one. With pointed references to Vietnam and current suicide bombings, Rickert turns this Omelas-like moral dilemma into a powerful family drama. The final story in this section, "A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way," returns us to the bereaved mother theme; in this case, she's moved to California after her daughter's death, but becomes so obsessed by crows that her brother and best friend begin to worry about her sanity — but as usual, the issue isn't quite that simple.
The section "Waking" includes Rickert's first published tale, the bizarre love story "The Girl Who Ate Butterflies," in which the title character does exactly that but still manages to seem the most rational character: her mother sculpts angels, her boyfriend Quetzl abducts her to Mexico, and another girl besotted with Quetzl tries to get his attention by setting a fire in which she herself perishes. Angels also figure in "Many Voices," narrated by a murderer, now pregnant, who believes that she was guided by angels and still lives in a world of auras and angels; the voice here is one of Rickert's most convincing, and contrasts dramatically with the violent and profane voice of the pro fighter, haunted by the ghost of a kid he brutalized in high school, who narrates "More Beautiful Than You." And there are still more angels — at least in the mind of a dying old man — in "Peace in Suburbia," a heavily ironic twist on the Nativity story which returns us to another war-threatened world like our own, and which is yet another adventure in narrative, this time using the risky second-person voice. The final group of stories, under the heading "Rising," includes "Moorina of the Seals," which is a harrowing portrayal of seal hunting but leads to a fairly conventional fantasy ending, and "The Harrowing," which touches upon the issue of sexually abusive priests. But the outstanding story here, and the most relentlessly painful piece in the book, is "The Chambered Fruit" which mirrors both "Map of Dreams" and the Persephone myth in a tale of clueless but well-meaning parents who permit their lonely teenage daughter to go off on a sleepover with a new friend she met on the Internet. The husband checks out the new friend by calling her phone number and talking to the dad, but later learns that the phone number he called was a phone booth and the "dad" was the predator who rapes and strangles their daughter. As in "Map of Dreams," the mother, a painter of folksy scenes, becomes convinced she can regain contact with her daughter, but here there's no fantasy consolation, only survival and trying to regain a place in the world and the community that shuns her. "All life is death," she says. "From death, and sorrow, and compromise, you create. This is what it means, you finally realize, to be alive." This may be Rickert's characteristic theme, and from it she's forged the most impressive debut collection I've seen this year.
— Gary K. Wolfe, Locus, October 2006