Saturday, February 5, 2011
The specter of this mother (a former musician headed to Carnegie Hall) will haunt her daughters through high school and college, through early romances and careers. Only after every possible intervention fails, Mira (who was born Myra) and her sister change their names and elude their mother—a tactic that might provide some order, certainly, but does not relieve either daughter from worrying over their schizophrenic, increasingly homeless mother.
Bartok began life as an artist, and her complex, quite lovely illustrations sit at every chapter's start, alongside notes from the mother's own heartbreaking journals, discovered by Mira and her sister in a storage unit during the mother's final few weeks of life. The journal entries betray a woman struggling to hold on—to anchor in with some kind of knowledge, any kind of knowledge, any thing she can note, decipher, track. The journals also provide a haunting counterpoint to Mira's own struggle to remember and understand, for Mira herself has suffered a brain injury in the intervening years, thanks to a terrible car accident.
Bartok, who is also a children's author, fills her story with allusions to myths and fantasy, softening the insufferable with flights of tremendous fancy. She writes at times quite simply and at times with a poet's stance. She blames no one, but always tries to understand. I admired her work enormously here—her empathy, her powers of recall—and if at times I felt that some of the tangents added unnecessarily to the story, or took the tale as a whole more toward autobiography than memoir, I closed the book with the deepest respect for Bartok, not just as a writer, but as a person.