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BookBrowse Reviews The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

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The Memory of Light

by Francisco X. Stork

The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork X
The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2016, 336 pages

    Paperback:
    Aug 2017, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp
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A teenager's battle with depression is sensitively worked into this hopeful novel.

"If you're reading this, it's because you found it taped to the back of Mama's painting…"

In the prologue, Vicky Cruz has left a suicide note for her beloved nanny, Juanita. She's hidden it in a spot where it will be found after she's gone, then swallowed a bottle of her stepmother's sleeping pills. The story opens as Vicky wakes in Lakeview Hospital. When Dr. Desai asks about her circumstances, Vicky only replies: "How can you love someone and still try to kill yourself?"

This is the underlying question in The Memory of Light, a spare and cleanly written story about learning to live with depression. Vicky loves Juanita, as well as her father and sister. She knows she will be missed. And yet, she cannot find the will to live. Although Vicky has had her share of stressors, disappointments, and loss, there is no particular source of her pervasive sadness. There is no specific rational reason her life has become completely unbearable. Ironically, this knowledge and awareness is part of Vicky's disappointment in herself. She believes she doesn't "deserve" to feel sad, which leads to more self-loathing and depression.

The majority of the story takes place at Lakeview Hospital—a facility that is not her wealthy father's choice—as Vicky participates in individual and group therapy, learning to understand her mind and body, as well as that of other teens struggling with various types of mental illness. Dr. Desai is a gentle and wise mentor, leading Vicky gently through the confusing maze of healing. Her cohorts, and fellow "failures at living" in the Group Therapy Healing group are acerbic and energetic Mona, sensitive and spiritual Gabriel, and angry, sarcastic E.M.

Within the safe walls of the hospital "mental ward," Vicky manages to get through moments, then days, keeping the tentative promise she made to Dr. Desai: "I won't try to kill myself...while I'm here." Although her new friends struggle with different types of mental illness—bipolar and impulse control disorders, and schizophrenia—they manage to learn skills and insights from one another.

The variety of ailments seems conveniently contrived for the purpose of the story and yet these are plausible illnesses for a group of teens within a treatment program. Vicky can see the disorders as one part of the person, rather than their entire being. She recognizes the ups and downs associated with bipolar in Mona, sees the troublesome aspects of Gabriel hearing God's voice, and learns to fight, from E.M. She begins to understand and accept that the darkness in her mind is depression, most likely caused by a chemical imbalance in her brain. She is learning to classify the dark thoughts and worries as an entity separate from her true self.

I enjoyed the spiritual component to the story, where no one religion is prominent. On her desk, Dr. Desai has a figure of Ganesh, a Hindu god worshipped as the removal of obstacles, for Vicky to focus on. E.M. pays homage to the Aztec warrior god, Huitzilopochtli, while Gabriel identifies his (schizophrenic) voice—the one guiding his actions and words—as God.

Once their treatment progresses and relationships deepen, Dr. Desai takes the group to her ranch to allow them a transition period outside the confines and restrictions of the hospital. They are required to work part of the day, but can also explore and wander through the surrounding area, together and alone. Their individual progress and group connections are put to the test in new ways. The plot picks up pace here, adding a more dramatic element. Although the relationships forged are crucial to the story, it is clear that Vicky's journey is her own. I appreciated that, unlike other similar stories for teens, there was no romance component to the story. Other relationships—the emerging friendships, the tense ones with her family, the connection with her doctor—are challenging and fulfilling enough.

Stark's prose is spare and simple, much like his highly regarded novels, Marcelo in the Real World and Last Summer of the Death Warriors. The manner in which the prose reflects Vicky's mental state was a struggle for me as a reader, but also something to be admired. We hear the story through Vicky's point of view. In the beginning, her perspective is morose and somewhat bland, due to the fog of depression. It is a slow start, without a lot of respite from her muted world view. However, as the novel progresses, and Vicky begins to see the world anew, the prose deepens and the story becomes far more engaging. The action picks up and characters become more complex and interesting—partly because Vicky is finally able to be interested, and to care.

Among other stressors—her highly competitive school setting, the demands of her ambitious father, the fractured relationship with her sister—Vicky knows she will also face the stigma of her action when she returns home and to her small private school. It is why a book like this one is needed. A suicide attempt is seen as a definite societal taboo. The stigma associated with depression and other mental illnesses makes them hard to treat.

Although based on the author's own experience in combatting depression, the story is definitely fiction. It provides a somewhat cerebral look at the condition rather than evoking an emotional experience. With increased awareness and understanding, hopefully more people will find the support and treatment needed.

The Memory of Light sends a message to a depressed teen that he or she is not alone. I also recommend it to friends and family members looking to understand a loved one's fight with depression. The novel certainly helps to answer Vicky's question: "How can you love someone and still want to kill yourself?"

Reviewed by Sarah Tomp

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2016, and has been updated for the August 2017 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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