Mary Rickert signs herself M. Rickert, and this seems right. She can surely be found within her tales, almost all of which to date have now been assembled in Map of Dreams, but the lock must be picked; though we must be chaste about presuming that in attempting to listen to the real author (Mary) at work we are not disobeying her clear intent to be read as nothing but an M. of no gender. The gap between the implied narrators of these tales (that is, the author we construct out of the words on the page) and their actual author is, in other words, more than usually opaque. But the tonal intensities, the reiterated character types, and the sense that some abyssal understory shapes these tales of family romance and tragedy: everything provides the reader with a rhetoric of transfiguration: something unendurable being transfigured into art. It may seem presumptuous or merely vulgar to suggest this — why not in all decency just leave the author alone and read the work — except for one additional and inescapable uttering out of this play of concealment and exposure.
The title novella, first published here, is Rickert's fullest presentation to date of the primal trauma that her best work radiates out of: in this case, nakedly, "Map of Dreams" takes its incipit in a mother's inability to accept the death of a child, and climaxes in her still-anguished but no longer pathological awareness that she can do nothing to change the past. In "Map of Dreams" her name is Annie Merchant; her first-person narrative transacts the torture of her fate very fully. After the death of her [daughter], shot down by a random sniper, she abandons her previous life, essentially because those with whom she has spent that life fail to heed her intransigent adherence to her state of denial. She begins to stalk a writer named Max von Feehler, whose wife had also been killed in the same massacre, because she believes (rightly) that he has discovered a way to travel through time (her description of this resembles J. W. Dunne, but in the end it moves elsewhere). She follows him to an island off the coast of southern Australia, where he has undertaken forays into the dreamtime of the aboriginals who suffered genocide at the hands of the people who now occupy their land: he has, in other words, travelled back through time to a world in which they are still alive, an experience which afflicts him savagely. (There are a few echoes here perhaps of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood .) She follows him into the dark abysm, where she witnesses the utterly intolerable sadness of the last aborigenes as we rape and destroy them. She also discovers — basing her reticence, I think, on the assumption that her readers will know what she's doing here, Rickert does not make this explicit — that any attempt to change the past is an Appointment in Samarra, that it is the actual presence of Annie and von Feehler at the scene of the massacre that in fact causes it. The depth of their passion to save constitutes a complicity in the coils of time with the loss they cannot live with: until they do. By the end of the long tale, Annie is fragilely home in the present again. She will live. She begins to write stories down, out of the dream time and out of her life. And here's the point. The rest of Map of Dreams, which in "reality" comprises M. Rickert's work from her first publication in 1999 to now, is here presented as the set of those stories written down by Merchant. There is a deep and rather strange game being played here. Are we to take Rickert's life's work as coming out of Annie Merchant's recovery from the tragedy of "Map of Dreams"? Is Map of Dreams a kind of game of Twelve Step? Maybe, maybe not; maybe so what? My personal interest, as reader, focuses mainly on the fact that an intricate game is being offered by M. Rickert here in terms she does not seem to wish us to be able to refuse. My impulse is to play the game up to the point where it threatens to become more than a game of art; and to stop there. But where does this leave us? It leaves me, for one, with a body of stories two or three of which seem masterful, and several of which seem disembodied. At times the hummingbird hovering of her presentation of register generates a tale like the superb "Cold Fires" (2004), in which a married couple — locked literally in estranging ice as a cold cold winter traps them in the house of their failed marriage — tell each other tales of supernal severing out of their own lives. The story is like a monad of many colours, hovering weightless but infinitely grave in the mind's eye. "Anyway" (2005) is a word-perfect harrowing of America in the time of plague of Iraq, a multitude of stories — and exquisitely distinguished characters — in one levitated voice of telling hard as diamond. At other times, though, in a tale like "A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way" (2006), Annie Merchant (or whoever) begins to pound the eyes with the staccatos inherent in her chosen radical of assertion, and I lose headway, and wish to stop. But always to return.
Rickert is as good as anyone I've read in recent years at first paragraphs, which means she has a genius for knowing where to start. Her best stories build from that thrust of beginning like James Tiptree Jr. in her pomp. And in good stories and less good alike, there is a density and swift grasping rightness in Rickert's verbing, and a nakedness of passionate intensity that needs not utter itself, which reminded me strongly of Emily Dickinson, who burns you when you see her face on. But then we know that, in our hearts: we know that the highest art, the level of art which Rickert clearly aims to attain, is a heavenly hurt to mortals.
— John Clute, Interzone