The Memory Palace
Free Press, 2011, $25
Suffering from memory loss following a car accident, Berkshires resident Mira Bartok wrote The Memory Palace , in which she recounts her idiosyncratic childhood and her mother Norma’s descent into schizophrenia. Bartok’s memoir reads like a collection of fragile memories that mask an ocean of passion and sadness.
The first part of the book is set in the gritty working class Cleveland of the late ’60s and early ’70s. We witness the startlingly counterintuitive maturation of two gifted sisters in contrast to a mother whose behavior grows increasingly more bizarre and threatening. Norma talks to people who aren’t present. She has strange predilections. Yet schizophrenia is not the entirety of Norma’s personality. She is portrayed as a very ill aesthete, who is able to take her daughters—during brief respites from her illness—to art museums and the symphony. Mira shows great talent in piano and her sister, Rachel, in literature. A young Mira resolves, “I vow to hold on to 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.”
Bartok provides a sympathetic retelling in which memories of an abusive grandfather and panic-stricken grandmother do not provide Bartok’s mother, Norma, with the help she needs. Mira’s father, the celebrated writer Paul Herr, lives out of contact, in an ascetic New Orleans boardinghouse.
Mira goes on to attend art school in Chicago, work as a docent at museums, travel to Italy, Norway, and Israel, and become a writer of children’s books. Rachel becomes a college professor. Meanwhile, Norma’s behavior worsens. Norma harasses Mira and her sister when she appears at workplaces and behaves in ways that disturb employers and even causes one to fire her daughter. Both daughters try to separate from her and seek care. Then Norma cuts Mira’s neck with a broken bottle during a reunion; Norma later stabs her own mother. At this point, Mira and her sister decide to change their names and communicate with their mother only through a post office box.
A decade later, however, they are reunited, and redemption occurs as the two sisters explore Norma’s collections of odd possessions, including her journals. Throughout the memoir, we are privy to the content of these journals, as Bartok is careful to present us with Norma’s perspective. In fact, the book opens with a fantastical passage of Mira’s imagining her mother: “The men below call up to save her, cast their nets to lure her down, but she knows she cannot reach the garden without the distant journey. She opens her arms to enter the land of birds and fire and the red eyes below are amazed to see just how perilously she balances on the ledge—like a leaf or a delicate lock of hair.”
Mira Bartok’s breathtaking memoir is seemingly told from a child’s innocent perspective, but with a second glance, the delicate craft of the language becomes apparent. It is a deeply personal and highly skilled work that hovers on a precipice between overt emotion and stoicism. The result is an engaging and thought-provoking book that mirrors the uncertainty and fragility of a haunted childhood.