Sunday, March 20, 2011

the memory palace by Mira Bartok

At sixteen, I vow to hold onto beauty, no matter  what--to sitting in a rich carpet of grass, a concert hall, a museum full of art--in a place that has nothing to do with the unbearable glare of grief.  --Mira Bartok

Mira Bartok struggles with her memory after a car accident so she tells her story using a series of memories about paintings.  Each painting hangs in a different room of her memory palace and represents a different time from the author's childhood and adult life.

Ms Bartok's life has centered around her schizophrenic mother, and the actions she and her sister must take to preserve their own sanity and lives.  The memories she shares range from a childhood in Cleveland, to escaping the craziness for college, and eventually abandoning their mother in order to have normal lives and careers.  Their mother Norma will call them non-stop or come to their door steps screaming about rape or pregnancy.  There is no way to have a calm, sane existence if Norma knows where they are.  Throughout this memoir the author takes us through each room in her palace--every room tied to a memory of her life with or without her mother.

I loved the unique concept for drawing us into her life story.  The story is sad but because the author was able to escape her mother it felt hopeful.  While at the same time I never doubted her love for her mother,  and I always understood her guilt but the need for complete separation.  Imagine corresponding with your mother through a series of PO Boxes never really knowing where the other is.

In between chapters and memories, the author includes excerpts from her mother's journals which she kept throughout the years. These excerpts of her mother's life were probably the most original part of this story, especially since for many of the years the diaries were written, the author had no idea where her mother was.  She could only guess based on examining diaries years later.  The treasure trove of artifacts and art that her mother left behind really drew me into the work in a very tangible way. 

Of the many memoirs of growing up in a household with mental illness this rates as one of the most original.  I loved the author and respected and understood her choices.  

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