Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Book Review: The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

Summary from Book "People have abandoned their loved ones for much less than you’ve been through," Mira Bartók is told at her mother’s memorial service. It is a poignant observation about the relationship between Mira, her sister, and their mentally ill mother. Before she was struck with schizophrenia at the age of nineteen, beautiful piano protégé Norma Herr had been the most vibrant personality in the room. She loved her daughters and did her best to raise them well, but as her mental state deteriorated, Norma spoke less about Chopin and more about Nazis and her fear that her daughters would be kidnapped, murdered, or raped. When the girls left for college, the harassment escalated--Norma called them obsessively, appeared at their apartments or jobs, threatened to kill herself if they did not return home. After a traumatic encounter, Mira and her sister were left with no choice but to change their names and sever all contact with Norma in order to stay safe. But while Mira pursued her career as an artist--exploring the ancient romance of Florence, the eerie mysticism of northern Norway, and the raw desert of Israel--the haunting memories of her mother were never far away. Then one day, Mira’s life changed forever after a debilitating car accident. As she struggled to recover from a traumatic brain injury, she was confronted with a need to recontextualize her life--she had to relearn how to paint, read, and interact with the outside world. In her search for a way back to her lost self, Mira reached out to the homeless shelter where she believed her mother was living and discovered that Norma was dying. Mira and her sister traveled to Cleveland, where they shared an extraordinary reconciliation with their mother that none of them had thought possible. At the hospital, Mira discovered a set of keys that opened a storage unit Norma had been keeping for seventeen years. Filled with family photos, childhood toys, and ephemera from Norma’s life, the storage unit brought back a flood of previous memories that Mira had thought were lost to her forever. "

My Thoughts: I think it's the social worker in me that's drawn to books about people with mental illness and how it affects their lives. I was also fascinated about what exactly this "memory palace" was that is the title of the book and what it refers to and here is the answer to that on pg 31: "A memory palace. A man named Matteo Ricci built one once...Ricci, a Jesuit priest who possessed great mnemonic powers, traveled to china in 1596 and taught scholars how to build an imaginary place to keep their memories safe. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember. to everything they wanted to recall, they were to affix an image, to every image, a position inside a room in their mind". As you read further in the book, and the author explores how she feels about what she reads in her mother's journals, she 'places' these memories in her own memory palace.

After reading this book I came away with a strong admiration for the author and her sister who dealt with their mother's illness very differently. The author did move away and change her name but set up a post office box through a friend for her mother to send mail to in somoe small way, she could watch out for her. Her sister also moved away and changes her name but chose not to have any contact with her mother. I'm not saying either approach was the right one, just that it was the right one for the particlualr person and I was impressed that they both figured out what they had to do for themselves thought they each struggled with it. The author with knowing too much and her sister with not knowing enough.

The summery above is from the book jacket so you know going in that the two sisters travel to Cleveland to see their mother and be with her as she dies. Among her mother's things is a set of 17 keys. One of the keys is to a storage unit that contains all of their childhood photos and affects, items that both sisters thought were gone long ago. As she goes through these, these are the items that help make up her Memory Palace.

This was an amazing book about family, love, and forgiveness and I would recommend it highly.

No comments:

Post a Comment