The Shipbuilder of Bellfairie, M. Rickert (Undertow 978-1-988964-32-4, $17.99, 248pp, tp), August 2021.
Even though her short fiction is consistently brilliant on its own terms, occasionally a story by M. Rickert leaves us with the feeling that there’s a good deal more to learn about these haunted characters or equally haunted settings. Such was the case a few years ago when Rickert’s collection You Have Never Been Here included an original story, “The Shipbuilder”, which concerned a giant of a man named Quark returning to his home village after learning that his once-abusive father has gone missing. In terms of some crucial plot details, her new novel The Shipbuilder of Bellfairie is entirely its own thing, but anyone who read the story can’t help but be intrigued at the prospect of revisiting the strange, weathered, remote village of Bellfairie, at times described in almost Lovecraftian terms (“narrow, labyrinthine streets lined by dismal houses with withered plants in clay pots perched on sagging porches or cracked concrete stairs as if awaiting revival”). All that’s missing, you would think, are a few eldritch fish-people and some slumbering Elder Gods. But, as we should know by now, that’s not at all what Rickert is interested in. Bellfairie might have an origin story that sounds like nautical legend – it was supposedly built by shipwreck survivors using timbers from the lost ship – but now it’s populated with believable figures of life, as though characters from Flannery O’Connor or Sherwood Anderson had somehow wandered into Innsmouth.
The result is masterful, even as the actual supernatural elements mostly hover around the edges of the tale. At six feet ten, Quark, who earns his living as a taxidermist, is a terrific character, speaking in cautious, almost formal sentences, fascinated by the story of Frankenstein (which he checks out of the local library), still wounded by his father’s harsh brutality and haunted by the mystery of what actually happened to his mother, who he believes died when he was an infant. Almost as soon as he arrives in Bellfairie, the mysteries begin to deepen. Driving into town, he meets the mysterious Mr. Yarly, long rumored to be a devil worshipper, then settles in for breakfast at an ancient café bearing the absurd sign Sushi Palace, a leftover of an outsider’s failed attempt to drag the town into trendy modernity, but now owned by Quark’s childhood friend Dory. There he also meets Sheriff Healy and a young, pregnant waitress whose complexion reminds him of Snow White, and who is named Phoebe. When Quark finally gets to his father’s home, he discovers that the old man has been obsessively building a huge wooden ark in his backyard.
If this sounds like the opening of a murder mystery, with a missing person and a long-lost stranger arriving in a distrustful closed community, it is, at least in part. It’s not long before Quark’s father Thayer turns up alive – but not for long. His is the first in a series of unusual deaths, each of which seems to have some at least tangential connection to Quark, who had “watched enough police procedurals to feel certain he would be suspected of something terrible.” Meanwhile, he learns from older members of the community some startling secrets about his father’s true identity and his own childhood. Despite having almost no memory of his mother, he discovers that he was eight years old when she died. He learns that odd marks on his body resulted from being struck by lightning as a child, though he has no memory of that, either. (He’s also told that “a man hit by lightning talks to ghosts.”) He also remembers strange tales, told by his old substitute teacher, that the people of Bellfairie are descended from “bird folk” who fled their homeland in an ill-fated ship full of bells generations earlier. It’s not surprising that Quark “often found his rational mind in dispute with the myth-imbued reality he was raised in.”
While Rickert’s skilled evocation of this myth-imbued reality lends otherworldly atmosphere to her setting (we don’t even know quite where Bellefairie is), she also introduces enough plot twists to keep the mystery compelling, and enough intriguing characters to convey the sense of a functioning, if oddball, community: the slightly dense sheriff Healy, the crusty restaurant owner Dora, the retired substitute teacher Mrs. Winter with her mythic tales, even the owner of the mortuary and the mysterious pregnant waitress, are all sketched with deft strokes. But the hapless but well-intentioned Quark remains at the center of the tale. We’re told at the outset that “His name was Quark, and the worst thing he ever did was nothing at all,” and while that cryptic comment doesn’t become entirely clear until the novel’s stunning ending, it sets the tone for this darkly magical tale.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the July 2021 issue of Locus.
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