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The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók

The Memory Palace

by Mira Bartók

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4071626,158 (3.86)23



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The first half of this book is luridly fascinating. Bartok indelibly conveys the distress and menace of growing up with a single parent, her mother, who is deeply, intractably, and terrifyingly, mentally ill. In the 2nd half of the book, after her mother has tried to cut Bartok's throat, and after Bartok has essentially placed herself in quasi-witness-protection-like status (new name, undisclosed location), to evade her mother, the book drifted away from me. Since her mother at this point becomes homeless and remains so for the last 17 years of her life, the focus switches to Bartok's adult life in Italy, Norway, Israel, New York, and elsewhere. Why she chooses these scattered and mostly troubled episodes is never clear, nor how each might relate back to her childhood, and I found her adaptation of the "memory palace" idea incoherent and confusing. During these years Bartok flirts with notions of guilt about not being more present in her mother's life, this in spite of the fact that the last person who had tried to help her mother, (her grandmother), had, in return for her efforts, been beaten, had her money stolen, lost her home, and ultimately was hospitalized with multiple stab wounds. That all interventions had failed, that some had failed with particularly gruesome outcomes, and that Bartok only actually returns when she knows that her mother is terminally ill, don't collectively make that guilt any less real, but they do make it harder to relate to.

In the end the women in the story that intrigued me were not so much Bartok and her mother - they each get lots of air time - but rather her sister and her grandmother. Both are handled in such an opaque and incidental manner in the book that they cry out for a more substantial treatment. In the case of her sister, it is almost as if her presence has been redacted from Bartok's account. The memoir is prefaced with old photos, and in the family photo, it only shows Bartok and her mother: her sister's image has been snipped off the right side with only a few strands of her hair remaining in the frame. Bartok's The Memory Palace is very much her story and hers alone, and not so much theirs, even though all three women were similarly traumatized by her mother's madness.

As for her grandmother, she especially seems to warrant some kind of special acknowledgement, having always had food and a bed ready for the girls when their mother was at her most negligent or abusive. Her grandmother is depicted as weak, but her entire, hellish family life consisted of living in fear: initially of a brutal husband and subsequently of a deluded and violent daughter. After the girls left home, the burden became hers entirely, and she was, albeit reluctantly and at great cost to herself, the only family who tried to intervene on her daughter's behalf. ( )
  maritimer | Dec 28, 2014 |
A gorgeously written memoir about a fractured family drawn back into orbit by the terminal illness of a mother -- a homeless, schizophrenic, musical prodigy -- a woman so volatile and frightening that both of her daughters had legally changed their names as young adults and "hidden" from their mother for decades. Both girls return to be by Norma Herr's side in her final days and discover, in a storage unit, her own written record of the intervening years. At turns lucid and fantastic, these writings allowed Mira Bartok (Norma Herr's younger daughter) to rediscover her mother and to better understand herself. Norma's journal entries that Mira includes in the memoir are hauntingly sad, and, yet, they show glimpses of a brilliantly talented woman surprisingly aware of how far from reality she lives. A thought-provoking look at the meaning of "family". ( )
  vasquirrel | Jul 27, 2013 |
This is a very hard book to read. I applaud Mira Bartok for her honesty in writing about her mother's Schizophrenia and the way it affected her whole life. Although I am interested in reading about fictional characters who have a mental illness, this is not fiction and I had to put it aside several times to regroup. I went back to it because the bravery of Mira Bartok to write it demanded that I would. Her struggle to take care of herself while not completely abandoning her mother was a very fine line to navigate and it won't be easy for readers to understand how and why she had to separate herself from her mother even when the mother was aging and homeless. But the fair reader will not judge a situation they have never faced and will realize that Mira had no workable choice. I got thru this book by reading a light book during breaks I gave myself and I suggest that to others. ( )
  stillwaters12 | Jan 8, 2013 |
A very sad book! It was horrible to read that these women had to change their names and hide from their ill mother, but understandable. Loved the quotes and little stories throughout. Bartok's writing is wonderful to read and she sounds like someone I'd love to meet! ( )
  briannad84 | Dec 29, 2012 |
A heartbreaking account of the conflict between love and sense of duty to the insane schizophrenic mother and person's desire to live her own life.

There is tremendous beauty, sadness and compassion in this book. ( )
  Niecierpek | Jul 1, 2012 |
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A gorgeous memoir about the 17 year estrangement of the author and her homeless schizophrenic mother, and their reunion.

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