Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok — 320 pgs

The Memory PalaceIn this haunting and penetrating memoir, author Mira Bartok shares her story of living life with a mother who suffers from schizophrenia, and the lengths to which she and her sister have gone to break away from the spreading violence and madness that so corrupt their lives. From Mira’s earliest memories, there was something not right about her mother, Norma. She often held conversations with unseen voices and became dangerously agitated when confronted. Living with her two young girls after being abandoned by her husband, Norma finds herself unable to take care of the three of them properly, her instances of illness growing exponentially. Eventually Norma and the girls move back into the home of her parents, but this too is a fraught situation, as Norma’s father is extremely abusive. As Mira and her sister grow older, Norma’s mental illness reaches an all time high and she becomes a persistent interrogator, and at times can be violent with her girls. Eventually the girls decide they must move to far-off cities and leave no forwarding address, hoping their mother will not be able to locate them. But when they learn that Norma is homeless and physically ill, the emotional toll it takes on Mira is severe. Though the girls try to get their mother the help she needs, she is far too stubborn, and it’s only when she’s in the throes of her final battle with cancer that the girls reunite with her and are able to get past the mental illness that has so decimated their lives. Stark and unflinching in its intimations, The Memory Palace is a chronicling of a life lived in the shadow of severe mental illness and the corrosion it inflicts upon a family.

Reading this book was difficult for many reasons. While the topic is one that interests me greatly, the realities of the story was the stuff of nightmares. It was extremely difficult to digest the ways in which this family was flawed, and the devastation was not only clear from Norma’s viewpoint, but of her girls as well. At times the book was frightening, and imagining what it must have been like to be a little child coping with this type of illness in a parent was heartbreaking and at times overwhelming. What was most frightening was the fact that Norma was constantly oblivious to her medical condition, leaving her daughters to bear the brunt of taking care of her and themselves, even when they were only small children.

As Mira reflects back on an atypical life and the consequences it had for her and her sister, she’s also dealing with the difficulties of having a brain injury after a disastrous car accident. All of these situations coalesce and leave her reserve low when attempting to deal with her mentally ill and dying mother. Mira begins to build a memory palace in her mind where the memories of her life can find a permanent home, but most of these memories are vivid with her mother’s madness and her inability to cope with the guilt this brings. Mira and Norma keep in contact through letters that Mira picks up from a post office box, and it is through these letters that the reader can see the psychosis and bizarre turns of Norma’s mind. In Mira’s reflections on life with her mother, Norma is at times horrifyingly emotionally spastic and occasionally ruthlessly dangerous, a woman pushed from the confines of sanity in electrifying relief. The memory palace Mira constructs also serves to highlight how both of the girls live in a world where it’s easy to shut out the infirmity of their mother.

Though most of the book is difficult and emotionally demanding reading, there are some spots of ethereal beauty in the story as well. One of the things that both Mira and her mother share is a love of art and music, and though both take very different paths in pursuing these interests, it’s something that they both can converse freely about and share appreciation for. Through the medium of artistic creation and interpretation, they bridge the distance between them. But most often, Norma is portrayed as paranoid and delusional, and even from childhood, she fills her daughter’s heads with otherworldly terrors and unimaginable and inappropriate things. Interspersed within Mira’s reflections on life with her mother are actual pages of Norma’s diaries and calendars, and what they reveal is a mind crumbling at its foundation. As Mira shares her perceptions of her mother, I could really understand how tiresome and scary it all was, the seemingly baseless paranoia and the interrogations that never ceased. When Norma is on her deathbed, the girls finally find a way to love their mother while still shunning the illness that consumes her, and it was here that the book took on heartrending urgency and emotional heft.

The Memory Palace deals with one of the least understood mental illnesses in human physiology, and as such, it expounds on something that is frightening and alienating both to its sufferers and to those who love them. While Bartok shares her perceptions on what it’s like to live with a mentally ill mother, she also shares pieces of her life that are eclectic and beautiful, but the thrust of this book is difficult and painful. It is obvious, though, that Bartok seeks to pay homage to her mother in a respectful yet uncompromising way, and in this endeavor, she succeeds fully. A very introspective and emotional read. Recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

21 comments:

Amy said...

Wow, definitely sounds like a very hard and emotional book to read, but also like a really interesting one. Thanks for the fantastic review.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I could totally see how this book could be frightening! Wonderful review, as always!

Audra said...

Eeek -- too intense for me, although I do enjoy lovely writing about creative endeavors.

bermudaonion said...

This sounds heart breaking and gut wrenching and, of course, I want to read it. You know me and memoirs.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I really found this to be an eye opener. It's hard to say enjoyable, as the subject matter was tough, but very good nonetheless.

Nymeth said...

You seriously write the best reviews. This sounds like a wonderful if difficult read.

Marg said...

This one sounds like a very intense read.

Amy said...

This sounds like a powerful and pretty disturbing book. It's amazing that Mira Bartok and her sister are functioning, contributing people in society after growing up in such difficult circumstances. It's almost like there's no where safe for the author and her sister to turn...their mother is too difficult to care for and doesn't want help but then she's living on the street homeless and ill. Wow. I don't see how you can be a part of this family and not be dysfunctional to a degree. The emotional ain must be awful.

I think this is a book I probably won't read, at least right now. But I'm very glad I read your wonderfully in-depth review :o)

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Wow, this looks like a really difficult but worthwhile read. I've known several people with split personality challenges but I think this might give a deeper, darker, more candid view of what family and interpersonal relationships are like. Interesting. Thanks for the review!

Jenners said...

This sounds very intense and heart-breaking. I can't imagine that she was able to bring herself to write about this ... let alone survive it. It just boggles my mind to imagine what those poor children and their mother had to endure and experience ... and no one stepped in to help them. I think I'd have to be in a pretty good place before attempting this book.

Suko said...

Excellent review of what must have been a very difficult book to read.

Anita said...

This has been on my TBR list for a long time, it sounds very intense. I think I'll still read it some day.

Liz @ Cleverly Inked said...

I can see why it would be so emotional. I think I'd have to be i the right frame of mind for a book so powerful.

TheBookGirl said...

Your review makes me think that I might have the same reaction to this book as I did to Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle; I found the book so emotionally draining that I had to step away from it at times, and ended up reading it in sections.
The aspect of the book addressing the mother's mental illness would be heavy enough, but the added layer of the author's brain injury is almost overwhelming. I can imagine that reading this book must have had a deep effect on your mood for a while after...

nomadreader said...

This one sounds intense. For some reason, if this book were a novel, I'd be sold, but tragedy in memoir is much more difficult for me to read. Regardless, great review.

Milli said...

wow. This is my first time on your blog and I just have to say that your reviews are amazing! I HAVE to read this now C:

-milli www.doodlereads.blogspot.com

Lisa said...

Great review! Perhaps the most horrifying thing of all is that, knowing the person the girls' mother was, their father abandoned them to her anyway. Norma couldn't really help who she was, but he could have/should have protected them. Sounds like very tough read.

Darlene said...

Wow, this sounds like such an emotionally charged book but one that really appeals to me. These are the type of memoirs I like to read.

Aths said...

I really can't wait to read this one. I'm pretty curious about how the daughters left their mother and made themselves untraceable. It's a very hard thing to understand, so I'm quite intrigued by this.

Jenny said...

You've read a lot of mom/daughter books lately, lol! I remember reading someone else's review and thinking it would be too much for me to handle but it does sound so very interesting!!!

Espana said...

Mira Bartok takes on the difficult circumstances of her childhood and her adult brain injury in a beautiful ~ artistic ~ magical manner. Her descriptions and memories of being a young child are written almost like a fairytale complete with lessons learned. The book is a sympathetic understanding of mental illness and how it affects a family. It also weaves a beautiful tapestry of the bonds of sisters.

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