Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

"Finally, I have built a palace within my palace, made from bits of colored sand. One breath could sweep it all away. It is protected by blue waves and wire, by elephants and incandescent shells, lotus flowers and horses, cryptic words and prayers. But the palace cannot possibly last; it will, like everything else, eventually disappear. It is the essence of memory, ephemeral as sleep, unsettled as the sea."
In The Memory Palace: A Memoir Mira Bartok tells her story of growing up with a schizophrenic mother and absent father, as well as her subsequent estrangement from her mother who she communicated with only through letters, going so far as to move and change her name. Bartok and her sister were forced to do this because otherwise their mother would show up at their place of work, call the police about them incessantly, and otherwise harass them. Bartok finally visits her mother only to learn that she is dying of cancer, as they say goodbye to the woman they could never really know, she and her sister go through their mother's boxes of belongings and incoherent journals. Bartok tries to understand her mother, reflecting on the moments that brought her to where she is today, including her mother, the men in her life, and a serious brain injury.

With so many well done memoirs about mental illness and personal struggles in recent years (A Glass Castle and Madness come to mind) that it becomes painfully obvious when I am indifferent to one. I am not indifferent to the challenges Bartok has face, which are immense and which she has shown great strength in overcoming, but ultimately as a book The Memory Palace failed to engage me. The book included far too many irrelevant details and information about the author's love life which blurred together in my head. In addition to boring and irrelevant anecdotes about the men she once loved, there was also a lot of information about things like the nurse that looked after her grandmother. There were also quite a few instances of rambling on art and other historical facts which while they may have been interesting to Bartok felt like a good editor would have cut them out.

In the end, it seemed as if there wasn't enough material in The Memory Palace with so much of it being irrelevant filler. In The Memory Palace Bartok tried to combine a personal story about dealing with a brain injury along with a separate and distinct story about her mother, and I never found that the two narratives connected. I also never really found myself at all interested in the brain injury portion, as I also feel other authors have dealt with that much better and in this case it only seemed like half an effort. The Memory Palace is not a total failure, as the premise is intriguing, and there are certain moments of beauty and lovely imagery. Bartok is also an artist and the book contains an image of an original and relevant piece of art with each chapter, which are gorgeous. However The Memory Palace is a memoir which is simply too easy to put down, and ultimately a book needs more than a good premise to make it remarkable.  

Release Date
January 11, 2011    
Pages: 336
Overall: 2/5
Source: E-galley from publisher
Buy the Book


  1. Thanks for your honesty. I am still intrigued but can understand your statements also, so I may pass, we will see.

    I agree Glass Caste was great.

  2. @ Marce- I've actually read only positive reviews of this book (besides mine) so you may enjoy it, I just read a ton of memoirs, I've already read 4 so far in 2011 and I'm working on my 5th, so I'm kinda picky about them I guess.

  3. Sounds like a deep book. I can't imagine what it's like living with a mother who goes through that. Sometimes it's hard to see past our own experiences and realize not everyone has it as easy.

  4. Thank you for that honest review. I'm a new follower and I love your blog!

    Michelle V

  5. I'm reading a memoir about mental illness right now that's loaded with material called The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks. It may actually be too much information but so interesting. I thought this one sounded really interesting at first but yours is not the first review I've read recently that was less enthused.

  6. Your review resonates with me - I was so enthused when I heard about the book, but had a hard time getting into it and haven't returned once putting it down at the point where they're going through her mother's storage room. I so wanted to love the book, but I agree - while I'm interested in the mental illness aspect, not so much on the brain injury. I'm sure it's the reverse for others.


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