Title: The Memory Palace
Author: Mira Bartók
Publisher: Free Press
Publication Date: January 11, 2011
Hardcover: 320 pages
Genre: Biography, Memoir
” 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 protege 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.
The Memory Palace is a breathtaking literary memoir about the complex meaning of love, truth, and the capacity for forgiveness among family. Through stunning prose and original art created by the author in tandem with the text, The Memory Palace explores the connections between mother and daughter that cannot be broken no matter how much exists—or is lost—between them.
Beautiful, at times heart-breaking, The Memory Palace is a story about the ties that bind a family together, illness that can separate or bring a family together and the love between sisters, and mothers and daughters. Myra and Rachel Herr changed their names as adults to try to keep their mother from finding them. Norma Herr a severe schizophrenic, ultimately ends up homeless and for seventeen years the only contact she had with her children was through her younger daughter Myra, now Mira Bartók, and only through letters which were never sent directly to Mira’s home. Rachel, now known as Natalia, the older of the two chose to have no contact with their mother, at least not until they learned Norma had been hospitalised with terminal cancer. While Bartók could have written solely about what a dreadful childhood she and her sister had or their hardships or her mother’s life exclusively based on her journals, Bartók instead takes her memoir to another level where she does share with the reader pieces of her childhood, the responsibilities her older sister had to take on, Norma’s life from what was witnessed or written in journals and extrapolates these memories to the reader while describing herself as an adult traveling the world, learning, drawing, painting, living. The Memory Palace is an incredibly beautiful journey through various memories, lessons lived and learned, deep sorrow as well as joy and family. I truly enjoyed reading Bartók’s story, I took away a lot more than I thought I would, I learned and yearned to walk through an art gallery as well as attend an opera. A quest for truth, beauty, art, and knowledge are prevailing themes in Mira’s and Norma’s lives, each go about it differently to be certain, yet the desire is always just below the surface. I believe The Memory Palace would be a brilliant choice for a book discussion group as each page if filled with something to be shared and discussed. I rarely read entire books out loud to my husband, but I did share The Memory Palace with him and highly recommend it to all readers.
Mira Bartók is a Chicago-born artist and writer and the author of twenty-eight books for children. Her writing has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies and has been noted in The Best American Essays series. She lives in Western Massachusetts where she runs Mira’s List (http://www.miraslist.blogspot.com), a blog that helps artists find funding and residencies all over the world. The Memory Palace is Mira’s first book for adults. You can find her at: www.thememorypalace.com.
I received a complimentary copy of The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók from Shelf Awareness and Simon & Schuster to review. Receiving a complimentary copy in no way reflected my review of aforementioned novel.