Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Memory Palace

The Book: The Memory Palace

The Author: Mira Bartok (nee Myra Herr)

The Dealio: Bartok is one of two daughters, abandoned at a young age by their (alcoholic, genius, writer) father. Forced to live with their mother's parents, their gifted, schizophrenic mother begins a harrowing spiral of paranoia and combativeness, that ends, one night, with her attacking her daughters. In the aftermath of this violent, terrifying episode, (one of many such, but the mortal wound to the delicate balance the girls have created simply to be able to coexist with their increasingly irrational parent), both make an escape, a complete break which lasts for almost 17 years. Both women change their names, sever ties with their friends and remaining family, and communicate only through third party postal boxes in neutral cities.
Summoned back to their mother's side when she is 80 years old and dying (not a spoiler: this is clear within the first chapter of the story), Mira, who has become an artist and author of children's books, has, herself, suffered a brain injury due to a freak car accident. She now possesses a memory which is an Alencon lace-type affair: full of sumptuous, intricately woven designs, riddled through and through with minute gaps, gauzed-out recollections with several possible meanings ('That is what could have happened. Or...perhaps, what happened was this...'). As an antidote to the panic and uncertainty that envelopes her when she is faced with the smallest of tasks, (remembering appointments or how to get home from her grocery store), she adopts a device from the Renaissance:a palace of infinite rooms, into each of which she carefully situates a memory- in the form of a literal, mental picture. The memory is then safe, and can be visited again and again, reliably. Reassuringly.

The Grading Session: 4.851 pengies out of 5. This review is based upon an audio book rendering of the story. The reader is Hilary Huber, who is gifted and clearly moved and invested in the tale. However, the few debits that separate this story from a perfect score include some repetition ( I do understand the urgent and unrelenting weariness, guilt and agony of wondering where her mother is. Asking yourself if she, who has become homeless and traipsed in and out of institutions and programs for the best part of the intervening 17 years, is safe, warm, cared-for, must be a daily grief and scourge. Still, a bit of editing would have eased the narrative flow (look at the big brain on me, after reading one book about the editing skills of Jackie O!) considerably. The writing was lyrical, punctuated by meaningful- although obscure, sayings. Which makes them even more pungent. But there were three points at which I felt this books could have gracefully wound to a delicately couched landing...but then, suddenly, it didn't. This was still a hell of a read and I simply could not leave it alone. If you were caught up- often against your will- by the narrative of The Glass Castle, then you should check into the Memory Palace. Both powerful, made even more striking by the fact that these are both nonfiction.

Lessons Learned: There are people in the world who live extremely harrowing lives- and who manage to survive, even thrive. Also- the border between genius and mental illness appears, for some, to be crossed so many times, a passport has become a meaningless document. And finally, there is something to this notion that we are linked to those we have loved by that famous red string which binds us at the heart. So often in this story, Mira was traveling in some weird place (once, even, above the Arctic Circle), and leter discovered a notation from her mother's notebooks detailing the bird and animal life, or ritual and customs of the same places, written at the same time. It is that invisible, but very real thread which enables such a mighty mental connection. So, could we then believe that it is possible never to lose those who we love, and who love us, no matter the distance in actual miles? I would really love to believe this.

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