Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"The Memory Palace" by Mira Bartok

This book took me longer to read than I would have liked -- and I'm not sure why.

Surely the subject matter wasn't the issue -- two sisters living through the life of a schizophrenic mother, alcoholic, abusive grandfather, and grandmother who just can't do anything about it.  As the girls grow up into young women and start building their own lives, they get tired of the 27 phone calls in the night, the conspiracy theories shouted at them while in public, the occasional broken bottle against a neck or the threats of suicide.  They change their names, move away, and communicate with their mother only via letters through a PO Box. 

For seventeen years.

The narrator of the story, Mira, is the youngest child, and she suffers pangs of regret and guilt, while at the same time struggling to find her place in the world.  She feels she has a right to live a normal life, but now that her mother (by her mother's own machinations) is homeless and living in various shelters, Mira and her sister Natalia fight the constant battle -- when is their mother telling the truth, and when is their mother telling them just enough to get them to come home?

A painting of Mira's mother, done by Mira Bartok, included in the book

Ultimately, illness brings the girls to their mother, and a sort of peace is made.  It's easy for me to write that sentence, but you'd have to read the book to get how deep and dark that sentence really is.  It's not a spoiler so much as a "how did that ever happen"?

I expected to cry at the end of this book because my own mother and I have a less-than-optimal relationship.  Death has a way of bringing people together.  When I talked to my husband about this, he gently suggested that the mother in this book, while schizophrenic, at the deepest root of her being always loved her children above all else.  And sometimes mentally ill people may actually be able to love better and more than someone who should have a stronger grip.

Deep food for thought, and food that I wasn't sure if I wanted to spit out, or swallow whole.

As I mentioned previously, the book drags in places, but the story is poignant, and thought-provoking.  Will it be for everyone?  No.  But if you're looking for an introspective memoir written by a woman who's been through some serious agonies but has always been able to rise above it to examine it, not necessarily condemn it outright, give it a try.

Lori Anderson creates jewelry for her web site, Lori Anderson Designs, and wrote the blog An Artist's Year Off.  She's also a contributor to Art Bead Scene.  She is also the creator of the Bead Soup Blog Party.


  1. Excellent review. I like that you found your own "needs" as such in that you found it hard to read and slow to read...which indicates that either the writing was slow and "draggy" or that you were responding on a deeper level to something that bothered you.

    I like what your husband had to say about your thoughts and I love that you are able to share what you are thinking and work through things with him.

    Now of course I am curious to read the book. I'll let you know what I think.

  2. I live with a man who was diagnosed as depressed and/ or manic depressive, depending on the mood the diagnosing doctor was in.
    Mental illness is a topic I don't like to hear, talk or read about, yet I do, all the time.
    The Mister and I have come to terms with his... well, being different, since the diagnoses are spongy at best, and we both cope somehow. When it's good, it's really good- when it's bad, clench your teeth and get the hell through it, there's better times ahead. Most of the times, he suffers way more than I do, but sometimes, I'm the bug rather than the windshield.
    In my own situation, it's worth being the bug at times. But this is self- chosen; I have no idea what it must be like for a child to depend on an adult who is unpredictable and erratic.
    This book is on my "to get" list, thank you, Lori.

  3. Finished this just the other day. Compelling. Depressing. Yet hopeful.

    Living with those who suffer as Mira's mother did must be an absolute living hell. The tug and push of wanting to help and wanting to make things better vs. saving your own sanity and your own life could be crippling.

    This speaks to how the mental health system and social services used to be. I know things have improved but I wager if you asked anyone who is mired in this day to day "hell" they would say there is still a long, long way to go.

    Thanks for recommending this Lori. Gave me much to think about.

  4. As for the slow and draggy -- it was. And I think it was intended to be that way. This is not a "happy" story and it is one that needed to be told in the context of what it was, what it is for those who still suffer with and deal with this.

    While at times I'm sure life is like a roller coaster, just getting up every day and knowing that you are hiding, protecting yourself, fighting with all feels slow and draggy and never ending.


Thanks so much for commenting! It always makes my day!