The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Before I say anything else about this book, I have to voice how impressed I am with its author, Mira Bartok. It seems this woman has done everything - she lived in Italy, Israel, and Norway, wrote children's books, taught lectures and guided tours, painted, and now she has written a book for adults. She has a blog dedicated to connecting hopeful artists, writers, and composers with grants to allow them to continue their work. And she has dealt with many difficulties, from an unstable and frightening childhood to a life-changing accident, on her way there. I want to meet her - maybe one of these days she will come and do a book signing in Salt Lake.

Anyway, now that I've gushed a little bit... In a few words, The Memory Palace is a memoir about Mira Bartok's relationship with her schizophrenic, from whom she is estranged for seventeen years, but is able to reunite with shortly before her mother's death. However, there is much more to the story. Bartok sustained head injuries during an accident and began struggling with locating memories and dealing with excess stimuli. This experience helps her to relate to her mother's disordered thinking.

There is so much to this book that it is hard to know where to start. Bartok's writing is gorgeous. Sometimes I feel like memoirs and biographies get bogged down with details and chronology. Not so with The Memory Palace. She lays out different experiences from her life by taking us through her "memory palace," a technique of the scholar Matteo Ricci developed in 1596 to help scholars protect their memories. For every memory, there is an image and a location in the palace. Mira gives a tour of her palace, describing important scenes from her fascinating life in vivid detail. One of my favorite images is from the time she spent in Norway with her first husband -
The clouds had changed from white to shimmering green in an instant, then to twisting ribbons of magenta light swirling around the stars. [...] We stood, half buried in snow, holding each other's mittened hand, trying to balance against the wind. My hand slipped out of his and I let myself fall back into the snow. (243)
Not all of Bartok's images are peaceful, though - her mother has frightening delusions, and is prone to violence when certain delusions are upon her. One image that I couldn't get out of my mind was that of Mira's mother holding a broken bottle to Mira's neck as she struggled to escape.

Norma Herr's frightening episodes mark Mira and her sister, Natalia's lives so strongly that they change their names and separate themselves from her. (Their original names were Myra and Rachel. Bartok is a Hungarian composer - Both Mira and her mother were passionate musicians, a fact I appreciate, especially as I spent several months of high school trying to perfect a particularly discordant Bartok piece). However, despite the horror that Norma brings into their lives, there is beauty as well. Norma was a musical prodigy, originally married to a talented, drunken writer (who abandoned the family when the girls were still very young). Mira often compares her parents to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Even though Norma spends much of her adulthood homeless, she fills notebooks with facts she has studied and spends hours in museums, admiring paintings (Mira and Norma both loved Chagall). On her deathbed, Norma is surrounded by women who lived at her women's shelter, women who loved her and were inspired by her.

The women congregate around her bed. They massage her feet and hands, offer her spoonfuls of applesauce, and treat her like a baby. They love her and see in her a kind of wisdom I never imagined she had. (293)

As Mira explores her mother's life, reading journals and finding strange items in a storage unit her mother has kept for years, she is able to appreciate the woman Norma was beneath her schizophrenia - the loving, brilliant, and passionate woman. She sees similarities in herself and her mother, and she struggles to reconcile the difficult decision to separate herself from her mother so many years before.

This book was not easy to read. It was dark and frightening (especially as I have just started work at a home for the mentally disabled - hearing my coworkers tell stories of unexpected violence and then reading from this book was unsettling). At times it seemed hopeless. However, Bartok sifts through the horrors of her mother's struggle and presents us with a gem refined by fire. I was sobbing at the end of this book and couldn't stop thinking about it for days afterward. It is definitely a story that I will remember. I feel like I've hardly done it justice.

I have to add one more thing that didn't seem to fit anywhere in the review - I really appreciated Bartok's accurate neuroscience. In a field that is often misinterpreted, I was very impressed with her sources and knowledge.

Overall? This is a heavy dark book, not for the faint of heart, but it is beautiful. I'm glad I own a copy and hope to revisit it in the future.

FTC Disclosure: Book received from publisher

Accessibility/readability - Bartok's writing flows beautifully. Very readable.
Literary merit/Aesthetics - 4
Plot - 4
Characters - 5
Personal response - 4.5
Overall: 4.5


  1. I love Chagall as well.

    And if her parents were like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, she deserves much sympathy. Their story is so sad, but I'm strangely drawn to it. If you're ever interested there is a book (you can find it in the BYU library) called "Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda" that is a collection of their letters to each other. The love letters during their courtship are beautiful. The ones when she is in an institution are sometimes hard to read. At least they were for me.

  2. I really want to read this one. I've seen it reviewed somewhere else too, and both reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.

  3. @A Mitton - I have a literary crush on Scott Fitzgerald, so I am definitely going to need to read that book.

    @Sam - Do it! It is wonderful.

  4. What an amazing, insightful and kind review! Thank you so much for reading my book and for supporting my book. I do hope I read out in your area! Maybe when the paperback comes out, which, rumor has it, might come out this summer or fall.
    Best wishes and thanks again for such a lovely and well-written review.
    Mira Bartok

  5. @mirabee - Thank you so much for stopping by and reading my review, and thank you for writing such a lovely book! :)


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