The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

Photo: Marko Metzinger/Studio D

20 of 49
The Memory Palace
320 pages; The Free Press
The story of Mira Bartók's tormented relationship with her mother initially recalls Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle in its riveting depiction of unconventional families. But in lyrically elegant prose, Bartók's The Memory Palace explores not just relationships but the slippery nature of memory itself: Having lost much of her ability to remember in a debilitating car accident in 1999, Bartók must piece together her own past as she delves into her mother's. Norma, a aformer musical prodigy diagnosed as schizophrenic, adores her two daughters with a passion most of us wish we'd felt from our parents. But Norma's love is also scary. As the frequency and violence of her breakdowns increase—including suicide attempts and physical attacks on the girls—her daughters pull away, finding temporary escape in academia and then, in Bartók's case, in art and world travel. Eventually, after Norma lunges at Bartók with a broken bottle that "slices into the front of my neck, right below my Adam's apple," the sisters change their names to keep their mother, by this point often homeless by choice, at bay. But even after 17 years, Bartók can never emotionally let her mother go. She understands too well Norma's sad, mad zest for life, as expressed in the letters and notebooks Bartók quotes like prose poems. "What I respect most in this world are those who can combine words and pictures together in the same book or piece of art," Norma had once written. Bartók does just that, inserting her own illustrations and photographs into the text to create a heartbreaking expression of devotion to a mother she loved but had to abandon in order to survive.
— Liza Nelson