Friday, September 19, 2014

Book review: The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

Families can be difficult. That's probably an understatement for a lot of us, but reading about Ms. Bartok's relationship with her mother, a schizophrenic, makes the rest of our relationships look easy in comparison.

Mira and her sister Rachel bordered on homeless much of their young lives, often living with their grandmother and abusive grandfather as their mother was fired from job after job, as the voices got the better of her and her behavior became erratic and occasionally violent. As an adult, Mira gets a call that her mother is in the hospital and dying. She hasn't seen or spoken with her mother in years, although they do communicate through the mail, via a P.O. Box in another state under another name, as Mira does not want her mother to know where she lives. For good reason, as her mother has shown up at her work before and endangered her job. Her mother has endangered relationships, and even Mira's life. But no matter how much she tries to cut her mother out, unlike Rachel, she's never able to completely do so. But she and Rachel to sit by their mother's side in hospice, they clean out her storage unit (since she was homeless for many years), which brings back a lot of memories both good and bad, and Mira tries to reconcile the past with her feelings of love and self-protection.

The arty side of things got a little esoteric for me at times, and I never got her sister at all. Rachel seemed cold, lifeless, and unknowable. Not much of her life is told, she just shows up, seems more pulled together than Mira, but then can't take shit a lot of the time. Mira, confusingly, is both the weaker sister who always gives in to their mother, and the stronger sister who can stand up to their mother. Being too close to people makes it very hard to draw their personalities in a definitive way for outsiders, an author can be too close and because they assume what's in their own head is clear on the page, they don't actually build the characters enough, and I think that is part of the culprit here. She also seems conflicted about her own feelings towards her sister, but never really deals with that.

The book is well-written, an accurate and harrowing portrayal of a life growing up with a mad woman for a mother, but at the same time it has an element of distance and parts of the story are told at a remove (what ever happened to her ex husband? Was he ever diagnosed with anything? Does Mira see how she's repeating a pattern? Does she go to therapy to deal with it?) Enjoyed isn't the right word since the story is too sad, but it was an eloquent and viscerally told story, but flawed. Still worthwhile, though, particularly for anyone who has questions about schizophrenia.

I bought this book at a Borders going out of business sale.

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