The Memory Palace
by Mira Bartok
Readers of “The Memory Palace” by Mira Bartok quickly learn what a memory palace is; it is a way of remembering things of importance such as memories that are generally triggered by an object or a specific place. Bartok uses this frame to structure the tumultuous story of she and her schizophrenic and homeless mother, with each chapter being fuelled by an object that she keeps in her own memory palace. In addition to being a skilled writer, Bartok’s main background resides in fine art, a talent that she has honed from a young age. Chapters are accompanied by drawings of the image that the chapter is about adding an additional level of dimension to the book. The drawings are beautiful and it is easy to see that Bartok is extremely accomplished, however, their placement and size take away from their beauty making them seem more like an afterthought to the text itself. Her love for fine arts is much more apparent through her writing as it surfaces frequently amongst the story, whether it’s in the small drawings she stacked up as gifts to her indigent mother, or her time during art school navigating the new boundaries she needed to draw in her relationship with her mother.
In addition to the artwork that accompanies the text, Bartok weaves in passages from her mother’s journals, particularly during the time when her mental health declined significantly and she was left homeless. These are the pieces of the book that I found most heart wrenching and difficult to get through. As a whole, the text is heavy in its subject matter, the type of book you’d like to read a chapter of and then set it on one’s nightstand in order to process the material. Bartok juxtaposes her own story, one of a daughter who doesn’t know how to help her ill mother with the story of her mother, which does an excellent job of allowing the reader to understand just how complicated this family was, however also makes the reader dislike the author. Bartok makes it clear that as a child, she did the best that she could for her ailing mother and that eventually for her own health, she had to cut ties with her, however because of the way that it is written it is hard to empathise or even sympathise with Bartok. There were very few times throughout the text that I thought Bartok’s storytelling was understated, rather the moments of extreme turmoil tended more towards hyperbole and emphasized the drama they all had to endure.
Although I would have appreciated understatement rather than overstatement, Bartok’s prose is beautiful, linking passages of pain and suffering with statements like “I romanticize her illness; she is my Zelda Fitzgerald, my eccentric and capricious mother, my tormented, talented muse.” (120) In between stories of being left at museums as a child or her delusional mother showing up on her doorstep unannounced, there are reflections not unlike the musicality that her mother possessed before she became too sick to play piano anymore.
Although the text in its entirety is one that is beautiful in its ugliness, it was a difficult book for me to get through. At times I found Bartok’s story trying and her accompanying writing uncompassionate. I appreciate that she didn’t try to change story in order to make her or her sister look like kinder, more understanding daughters, but I found as a reader it was difficult to push through with an author that you didn’t particularly care for.