Book Review: The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork
Number of Pages: 336
Date Published: January 26, 2016
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Vicky Cruz shouldn’t be alive.
That’s what she thinks, anyway—and why she tried to kill herself. But then she arrives at Lakeview Hospital, where she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she’s never had.
Yet Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up—sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide—Vicky must find her own courage and strength. She may not have any. She doesn’t know.
Inspired in part by the author’s own experience with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one—about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.
I have depression, I say to myself. Saying “I am depressed” makes it sound like that’s all that I am. But that’s not all that I am. I have depression, but I am not just depressed. Maybe the night I tried to kill myself, that’s all I was. Depression took over and became my all. But I’m a good worker at the right job. I like to write. I like American Beauties and the soft-hard feel of a horse’s forehead. I’m a friend. I have memories and… hopes?
I could have opened with a different quote from this book, but this one, I believe was very empowering. The Memory of Light is a work of realistic fiction that tries hard and succeeds. It captures a realistic portrayal of mental illness, one that focuses on the journey to recovery; a journey that is anything but steady and predictable.
Let me just talk about a number of praise-worthy elements; first, the characters. Stork knows what to do with his characters. From the main character, Vicky, to Vicky’s family and friends, to Dr. Desai, the psychiatrist, every character is nurtured, developed, and unmasked for the readers to understand.
The character of Dr. Desai was one that I appreciated very much. Her actions were close to the ideal. The way she handles the characters’ circumstances gives us an insight into different types of responses – responses that encourage reflection, responses that convey warmth, and responses that facilitate awareness and growth. Her interactions with the characters give us answers and allow us to analyze the appropriateness of our actions towards individuals with mental illness. This scene will illustrate things better:
“There was just… pain, disugst, hatred. More than before. More than I could bear.”
“Be specific,” Dr. Desai insists, “Who do you hate? Who disgusts you?”
“Me,” I answer. “Vicky. Victoria. I make me sick.”
“Tell me one thing you did that disgusts you.”
I’m glad she doesn’t argue with me or list all the good things I have going for me.
We realize the opposite as we see how friends, family, and strangers react when a loved one shares that he or she is mentally ill. We are faced with the reality of mental illness as a stigma in today’s society. We are confronted with the truth that despite the efforts, there is still much to be done.
My father says impatiently, “What she did was a fluke, an impulsive mistake. It’s not going to happen again.” I meet his eyes when he says this, and I feel as if he is in fact warning me that it better not happen again.
“Understanding is not the only thing she needs right now. She needs to know that depression or no depression, you don’t ever quit.” He turns toward me. “Do you believe what you did was wrong?”
We gain an understanding not just of the characters but also the mental illnesses they struggle with. We get to see a glimpse of how certain illnesses manifest in their simplest and most complicated forms. How does a person live with depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, for example? One of the best things about this book is that it doesn’t try to amplify the pain or the difficulty of having an illness by stuffing the pages with drama. The writing is in fact straightforward and honest and one would agree that it desires more to reveal than to impress. Take this picture of depression for instance:
Why do people kill themselves? Doesn’t it always boil down to pain? There is pain in the body or the heart or the soul or the mind or all of the above. […] Mind pain is what I can’t figure out. It’s like when you throw body, heart, and soul pain into a blender, then you add a cup of disgust at all that you are, at all that you’ve become, at all that you’ll ever be.
So with my father’s question, the only answer I have is because it hurt. The words that settled forever in my head, the ones that kept rising endlessly out of nowhere, the words that others spoke, they hurt. All of it hurt, inside and out, everywhere.
Now, let’s go back to the journey to recovery because this is actually the best thing about this book. Recovery is not solely dictated by time, medication, or by a person’s will to get better. It is true despite how negative it sounds, and what I liked about this book is that it doesn’t provide a generic ending for all the characters. The journey consisted of gaining insight about the condition, relating with/to individuals with similar needs and experiences, experiencing hope, regressing, feeling hopeless, and getting the strength to stand to begin the journey once more.
This is not what happens to everyone, but this story is an accurate and honest portrayal of what mental illness is, how it really feels, and what living with it and knowing it for yourself is like. It doesn’t stop there. This book begs us to examine ourselves; to recognize that all of us struggle with our own mental illnesses which though temporary and less grave, are still very much real and very much inside each and every one of us.
I rarely do this but with all the persuasion I could muster, I ask that you give this book a chance. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this – This is a book that needs to be read.
…pain that is not acknowledged, talked about, shared even, doesn’t ever go away. It hides for awhile and then comes back in a different form.
What’s better? To hurt from your want or to be so dead inside that you don’t want anything? I don’t want anything.
Is there any way to avoid the emptiness of people’s absence?
It’s hard to accept that depression is an illness, that moping around from day to day with no will for so many years is not my fault. It feels like it’s my fault. Isn’t it your fault when you have all you want and need and much more than ninety-nine percent of has, and you still feel miserable?
There is pain in the body or the heart or the soul or the mind or all of the above. Body pain is obvious. Heart pain is the pain that comes from others, when they love you too much or not enough or the wrong way. Soul pain comes from feel your life is one big waste. Mind pain is what I can’t figure out. It’s like when you throw body, heart, and soul pain into a blender, then you add a cup of disgust at all that you are, at all that you’ve become, at all that you will ever be.