The Shipbuilder of Bellfairie
by M. Rickert
The Shipbuilder of Bellfairie
(Undertow Publications, pb, 250pp)
I read this book a few weeks ago and knew even before I had finished reading that I wanted to write about what it meant to me. I’ve held off doing so until now because I needed time to think about it, and to do so in a thoughtful, unhurried manner. Choosing to express my thoughts here on my own website, meant there was no deadline to force my hand. Sometimes a work needs that space. Sometimes, too much time is spent between reading the work and fulfilling that desire to write down one’s thoughts. Sometimes those thoughts never get expressed. Not so with The Shipbuilder of Bellfairie, a stunning work of literary imagination that demanded that I give it time and space to take hold and leave its magical imprint on my mind.
Here’s what I wrote.
The giant Quark—actually six feet ten—is the singular protagonist of M. Rickert’s The Shipbuilder of Bellfairie, an extraordinarily intense and magical work, replete with a surfeit of strangeness and charm. Although the story it tells is relatively straightforward, to speak only of what it tells or might mean is to ignore what to me seems much more significant—its profound emotional effect on the reader. Of course part of that effect stems from the narrative, but there is so much more going on in Rickert’s novel than its plot. As much as and even more than it is a story, it is a subtle meditation on memory and myth, one that both questions and throws light on how we interpret and are shaped by our own pasts. Memories, artefacts, letters, names—of people and of places—and dreams, are woven together to create a complex and at times contradictory narrative. Grief, we are told, in a Bellfairian proverb, is a ship without a captain. At one point in the novel, following the death of his father, Quark is told by Yarly, an old friend, “You’re the captain now,” and this feels precisely the case, for Quark is as at as much of a loss to account for the events of the past and the mysteries of the present to which he has returned, as we are. An early example of the narrative’s contrariness appears in a letter that Quark’s father, Thayer, has left behind for the sheriff before disappearing. In it he confesses to murdering both his wife and son. Having read the letter, Quark tells Healy, the sheriff, “I am not dead, am I? Cleary he was speaking … what’s that word? Something like a lie. He didn’t really kill me, obviously.” The letter also mentions Thayer’s having spread broken glass over the road to keep away his wife’s ghost. To ensure that Healy doesn’t read this too as metaphor, Quark continues, “He did spread glass over the road, however,” before emphasising the point: “I got a flat.”
On the surface, The Shipbuilder of Bellfairie might appear to exist somewhere on the borderlands of fantasy. The name of the town evokes both the twilight world of faerie and, in the reference to bells, the calling together of a community for a sacred or ceremonial purpose. At least one commentator has noted the Lovecraftian terms of Rickert’s description of Bellfairie, with its fog-shrouded bluffs and labyrinthine streets, and the idea of some malignant force feeding off the town like a tumour. Yet despite the otherworldliness of the town, it feels like a stretch to categorise the novel as a work of fantasy or horror, for this is a locale peopled by men and women whose behaviours and concerns seem very much rooted in our world. They hang out out the diner—renamed the Sushi bar but still functioning as a regular American diner—to eat and to gossip; they fall in love, get pregnant, sometimes marry; they remember the old days and celebrate their own peculiar customs; too often they know too much about each others’ private concerns. These are people like us, all too human, and most human of them all is the freakish and scarred (both physically and metaphorically), Quark himself. At the heart of the book is Quark’s struggle to know himself, and it is this pursuit, complicated by the reactions—some welcome, others suspicious and hostile—of the town’s inhabitants to his reappearance among them, that add to the novel’s power and psychological acuity.
Quark is by profession a taxidermist. Having left Bellfairie some years before—partly to escape his harsh upbringing—he has returned following Thayer’s disappearance and the discovery of the confession. Few people take the confession seriously, though Quark himself has long had his suspicions, particularly given the seeming cruelty to which he was subjected after his mother’s mysterious death. When he returns to their old house, Quark discovers that the old man had been building a ship in the backyard. It isn’t long before Thayer himself returns, only to die in his sleep shortly after. As Quark attempts to piece together his father’s final days and the purpose behind the confession and the ship, he is told stories about himself, about his father and mother, and an alternate history of the origin of Bellfairie, that runs counter to everything he believes about himself. Some of these stories are fantastical in nature, while many appear to contradict each other. The importance of stories is repeatedly stressed, and many of those told to Quark, allude to other tales—historical, mythical, and literary. Is his father really his grandfather, as his old schoolteacher insists? Was his mother kin to the strange birdlike humans who supposedly founded Bellfairie? Her name was Starling, and it was expected that she would bestow on him some bird associated name such as Robin, yet she named him Quark, after a star born inside a dying star, and which “no one is even sure … exists.” He’s told that he disappeared for a time when a child and was discovered in a heron’s nest; he remembers that his father rejected any association with birds, and brought a curse on the family after killing an albatross.
Since childhood Quark has had a fascination with Frankenstein (the crueller of the neighbourhood kids used to call him Frankenquark on account of his size), and throughout the increasingly dark narrative, he comes to resemble a composite creature, made up of a hodgepodge of other people’s perceptions and his own unreliable memories. He has always believed he was a baby when his mother died, yet he is told by Healy that he was eight. His memory loss may be a consequence of being struck by lightning when he was a child, itself an event he doesn’t remember, although he does remember Thayer talking to him about such people conversing with ghosts. Following his first night at home after returning to Bellfairie, he sits in the old man’s chair in the kitchen and imagines something small fluttering in the fog beyond the window. “One can imagine so many things,” he reflects as he peers through the window at the broken glass in the road up to the house. “She was only there for a moment, hovering above the shards, a woman he might have remembered. Or a Rorschach composed of mist and desire.” Following the murder of Phoebe, a young, pregnant waitress whom Quark has referred to as Snow White, he is newly perceived as a suspect and the story seems destined to play out as conventional murder mystery, with the protagonist endeavouring to solve the mystery and prove his innocence. Yet, though Rickert does allow her narrative to keep us guessing, the plot meanders through unfamiliar territory, constantly wrong-footing us as to the truth of Quark’s past, and of Phoebe’s fate.
Although these questions are, at least in part, resolved, what lingers more in the mind is the grace and humility with which Quark attempts to discover who he really is. His confusion, his sense of himself as out of both place and time—his being a taxidermist is apposite, conjuring associations with both death and resurrection— is conveyed with compassion and insight. His quixotic desire to fulfil Thayer’s wish to launch the ship and have his body buried at sea, demonstrates both his obstinacy and romanticism despite many practical difficulties and public ridicule. As much as Frankenstein’s monster or Coleridge’s ancient mariner, he is an outcast, a pariah even, in the face of a hostile crowd. But Rickert is too sensitive a writer to give us a simplified, one dimensional view of a faceless mob. The people Quark encounters, both those hostile to him, and those who are more sympathetic, are all delineated with economy and precision. Healy feels like a man trying to do his job fairly despite the call of the mob for swift action; Yarly, the source of local gossip and suspicion, is both sympathetic and enigmatic; Coral, an attorney and niece to Miss Winters, his old substitute teacher—and source of the myths about the history of Bellfairie— is, at different times, pragmatic, wary and kindly in her dealings with Quark; the down to earth and plain-speaking owner of the diner, Dory, whose encounters with Quark suggest the embers of a long ago tenderness. It is these characters and their interactions that give colour and depth to Rickert’s novel. Think of the peculiar, overly formal manner in which Quark speaks: “I thought I would stop at Nell’s before proceeding with my day,” he responds to a simple enquiry as to where he’s going. His dietary habits—he is a pescatarian, refusing to eat birds due to Thayer’s slaughter of the albatross—his wariness of the effect of alcohol; his habit of self-questioning which leads him to constantly re-interpret the events of his life and their significance, not least of which is his memory of his relationship with Thayer—coloured by harshness and cruelty, yet later countered by remembering the time the old man told Quark he loved him. With Bellfairie, we get a sense of a world that is so much like our own (it is, we are told, in America), but it is a town with its own odd customs, including one in which at Christmas, presents are delivered to children by a creature in a horned mask, rather than Santa Claus.
It is in these peculiarities and quirks of behaviour that the real significance of Rickert’s novel is found. Quark’s fate, though it is revealed on the very first page, will, by its random, ironic nature, shock or surprise some readers, but it is entirely in keeping with what comes before. Just prior to its final events, after a party in his honour Quark empties the urn that contains Thayer’s remains and asks, “Is this a life?” He proceeds to construct a tiny ship from the pieces of bone and bits of wood, fulfilling a final commitment to Thayer, leaving the sculpture as a parting gift for the people of Bellfairie, along with a letter saying ‘sorry’. But sorry for what? Rickert eschews certainty or resolution, leaving the reader to ponder again on our inability to truly know or describe the intimate details of a life. What The Shipbuilder of Bellfairie suggests to us, is that life is fleeting and indeterminate, and that it is in this that its beauty and mystery resides.