Book Review: The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork
When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital Mental Disorders ward, she knows one thing: After her suicide attempt, she shouldn’t be alive. But then 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.
But 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 Vick back to the life that drove her to suicide, she must try to find her own courage and strength. She may not have them. 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 had a lucky streak at the beginning of this year with not just reading books that are great in general, but that are specifically great in the way they deal with mental health issues. Because I read in order of publication date (the only way I can mange my towering pile of books), I didn’t even arrange for it to work out this way, to read all of these books at the start of our #MHYALit project. I have enjoyed Stork’s other two books—Marcelo in the Real World and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors—so I was expecting to like this one, too. “Like” is an understatement. This blew me away.
Vicky wakes up in the hospital after attempting suicide. Dr. Desai informs her she’s had her stomach pumped and that Juanita, her nanny, found her. Vicky doesn’t know how to explain what she did. She isn’t sure how to reconcile loving someone, as she does with her nanny, and still wanting to be dead. She just knows she hurts inside and she’s tired of pretending. Dr. Desai recommends Vicky stay for a few weeks for group therapy, individual therapy, to help out around the hospital, and to give them time to start to think about what medications may be useful. Vicky feels like none of that matters because she will inevitably go back to wanting to kill herself. Her chatty and affable roommate (with wrists full of scars), Mona, acts as a guide for Vicky, helping her get to know the other kids in the group. She learns that E.M. is there for anger and violence issues and Gabriel is there for, well, she’s not sure. He is slow to explain what’s going on in his life. Vicky is surprised by the “gentle but blunt sincerity” of the conversations about life in the hospital, mental illness, and more. She’s not used to people talking about these things.
Vicky’s dad and stepmom are high-achieving success stories, and so is Vicky’s sister. Her dad is more concerned with the school she’s missing and the fact that she’s in a public hospital (unacceptable to him) than he is with her actual state of mental health. With the support of her doctor and the group, Vicky is able to stand up for herself and stay for the treatment so she desperately needs. Though she’s promised Dr. Desai that she won’t try to kill herself while at the hospital, the thought is never far from her. She’s miserable. Vicky hates herself; she’s disgusted with herself. She is deeply, deeply sad and no one at home has recognized that. Though Vicky starts to make some inroads into feeling a little less depressed, she’s worried that going home will immediately bring everything back to feeling as desperate as it did before.
While the writing is outstanding and the characters well-drawn, it’s the real talk about mental illness that makes this novel stand out to me. Vicky often talks about the debilitating fog of depression, of the lies that depression makes a person believe. We learn that Mona is bipolar and see how that affects her, especially once she decides to give herself a little break from her medicine. Gabriel is possibly schizophrenic—he hears the voice of God telling him to give away his possessions and that he must die. The teens all talk about these very real illnesses and support each other when they each fall prey to believing in the lies, to feeling like they are to blame for their illnesses. At one point, Vicky says:
“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 the world has, and you still feel miserable?” (pg 102)
They struggle to accept their illnesses but are constantly reminded, by each other and their doctor, that what they have IS an illness and is real. The teens all come from different backgrounds and have varying levels of support or familial involvement in their treatment. They begin to really bond with each other, as the story goes on, and Vicky feels like in the hospital it’s five against one–her group and doctor against her depression. Each time we see her parents, we see so clearly how they just DO NOT get what is going on. Whether it’s ignorance—willful or otherwise–or denial, they don’t understand Vicky’s illness and make ridiculous demands on her once she leaves the hospital—get right back to school, get your grades back up, focus on getting into an Ivy League school (she’s a high school sophomore), get a job, BE FINE. Be better. Vicky, who is of course still struggling greatly with her depression, works hard to not be ashamed of what has happened and to be open with people about her needs right now. It is only after some very scary events go on with the friends in her treatment group that she can begin to make her family understand what mental illness really means and what they can do to support her.
This important book is an honest and candid look at mental illness, treatment, and recovery. The focus on therapy, medication, and support shows readers the many different ways to get help. The mental illnesses are handled sensitively, and the teens’ conversations go a long way toward encouraging open dialogues about mental health, acceptance, and the removal of stigma. Expect this profoundly moving book to fly off shelves.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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