The author of The Memory Palace really isn't named Mira Bartok -- that's the name she chose to live under in order to escape what amounted to harassment from her schizophrenic mother, a highly gifted by highly troubled woman who ended up living on the streets, in contact with her children only via a post office box. It isn't until Norma is dying that she, Mira and Mira's sister are reconciled -- and Mira begins to revisit her childhood, trying to understand how and why she could reach the point where effectively abandoning her mother became the only rational choice.
As anyone who has followed my reading on this blog or elsewhere knows, I'm no fan of memoirs. Far too many of these things are designed to make their authors look like heroic survivors of some kind of bizarre trauma, and come across to the reader (or at least, this reader!) as both self-aggrandizing and self-pitying. Wandering through BookExpo in May 2010, I ended up chatting with a publicist for Bartok's publisher, who urged me to run out and buy a copy of the book as soon as it was published early this year. Being an obedient kinda person (well, sometimes...) I did as I was told, however warily -- and then discovered a remarkable memoir that acquired a position on my "top books of the year" list. Bartok could have written a "poor, poor pitiful me" book -- and certainly had plenty of material to draw on. Instead, what she produced is an elegant and beautiful narrative, filled with a kind of poignant sadness.
What made this book distinctive? Well, let's start with Bartok's tone. She recounts her childhood history, including an occasion during which her mother attacked her with a broken bottle and cut her throat, with what I can only describe as a kind of dispassionate eloquence. You, the reader, feel Bartok's pain -- not just the physical pain of the assault but the emotional pain of not being able to rely on and trust her mother. Even when the violence wasn't present, Norma's illness left her paranoid and delusional, and her two young daughters end up sharing those fears. Eventually, Mira and her sister break away, travel, build careers and lives for themselves -- but they can never shake free of the early experiences that Bartok captures so vividly.
The way Bartok chose to recount her story also helped it transcend the memoir genre. It's literally a "memoir", a book about memory, from her mother's struggles with memory and reality to Bartok's own battle to regain and cling on to memories of her life, including her mother. She adopts an old technique, from which the title of the book is taken, imagining a memory palace, a place filled with objects that are tied to specific memories. Wandering through that palace, she can tap into the memories at will. Some of those memories are painful, but despite that Bartok is careful to portray her mother's reality as well as her own, quoting liberally from journals and letters, and marveling over the disparate objects from her dysfunctional childhood that she finds squirreled away in a storage locker.
How could a child deny her mother for nearly two decades? Read this book, and your question might change in nature. How, rather, does a child who endured such a difficult youth and adolescence find the strength and wisdom and compassion to return and re-evaluate those years? That's what Bartok has done, in admirable fashion. The result isn't always easy to read or comfortable, but it's emotionally honest, beautifully recommended and, by me, at least, highly recommended.