In a literary marketplace flooded with memoirs, I approached the reading of The Memory Palace with apprehension. The title sounds awfully familiar, and the publisher’s press release makes no apologies, announcing that the book follows “in the footsteps of The Glass Castle and The Liars’ Club.” I took a deep breath and prepared for another harrowing tale of how a mother ruined a daughter’s life.
But I set my skepticism aside after reading the first chapter of The Memory Palace, when I discovered that Mira Bartók’s account of her tortured upbringing by a schizophrenic mother is as compelling as the two best-selling memoirs to which it is compared. The book also boasts a strong storyline and eloquent writing. Bartók hooked me with this early passage: “We children of schizophrenics are the great secret-keepers, the ones who don’t want you to think that anything is wrong.”
Norma Herr is a musical prodigy whose schizophrenia slowly takes control of her life. After she gives birth to two daughters, Mira and Rachel, her husband leaves her. As her illness worsens, Norma struggles to raise her children, and fails. Her head is filled with voices, images of dangerous animals and of alien abductors. She threatens to kill herself, and threatens her daughters, too, should they reveal her terrible secret. She keeps detailed diaries and hoards small knickknacks and mementos.
As she reaches adulthood, Mira Herr is able to escape her mother by moving to another town and becoming Mira Bartók, an accomplished artist and children’s book author. (She makes the painful decision to change her name, taking the last name of Hungarian composer Bela Bartók, in order to avoid poison-pen letters, midnight phone calls and unannounced visits from her deranged mother.) But Bartók’s life takes an ironic twist when, at age 40, she is involved in a car accident that affects her memory. Suddenly, she is fighting to retrieve her memories; like her mother, she is engaged in a battle with her brain. When she later discovers her mother is dying of cancer, Bartók ends her estrangement. Finding her mother’s trove of diaries, letters and the arcane items she had collected, Bartók uses them to construct a “memory palace,” and is able to reconstruct portions of her childhood.
Bartók’s story overcame my memoir phobia with a page-turning plot, sophisticated writing and, as a bonus, vivid illustrations from the author. It does indeed deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as The Glass Castle and The Liars’ Club, and readers of those memoirs will find The Memory Palace richly rewarding.