Review: The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

Summary: 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. The Memory of Light 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. 

Genre: young adult, contemporary
Rating: ★★★★★

I’ve been ruminating on this review for a few weeks now, trying to explain exactly why it impacted me so much, and I don’t think I can give it the review it deserves without being a completely open book. So here goes.

When I was 17 I attempted suicide. I don’t really ever talk about it, not because I’m ashamed or embarrassed, or because there’s such a negative stigma surrounding mental health, but because I feel like in the last 11 years I’ve grown and changed enough and gotten the right kinds of help that it isn’t necessarily who I am anymore. I’m not going to lie and say that my depression has been magically cured or that my mental health is even really great, but it’s certainly gotten better than when I felt at absolute rock bottom as a teenager.

Even though memories I have from the 24 hours following my attempt are still shockingly vivid, I couldn’t tell you why I did what I did. I remember a social worker asking if it was because of issues with my friends, my home life, a boy. I remember my dad asking if it was because I was home alone a lot. I was frustrated because I couldn’t give anyone a cut and dry explanation. No, there was no boy drama. I didn’t mind being home alone a lot. My friends were great. I knew how I felt and that was all.

And I guess that’s the point of depression. There isn’t always a specific reason for not wanting to be alive anymore. Sometimes it’s a culmination of things. Sometimes you just wake up and feel like your life isn’t worth living. That’s exactly what happens to our main character, Vicky. Her home life isn’t great, per se, but it isn’t abusive or toxic. She doesn’t have much for boy or friend drama. She just doesn’t want to be alive anymore.

As we neared my house, I began to feel the strength that comes when you don’t care about anything anymore. I was strangely calm. I knew what I wanted to do. Not that night. But soon. Very soon. Happiness had knocked on my door, and I opened it long enough to see that I didn’t want what was being offered.

What I appreciated most about this book was the author’s note at the end that explained how he based Vicky’s story off his own, both being in a mental health ward and his own battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. As a result, there’s a touch of realness and depth there that is generally lacking in other stories that talk about mental health. There were so many times I would read a line and start tearing up, because it’s exactly what I remember feeling all those years ago. The story might be based around a teenage girl, but Stork was able to eloquently put into words the way depression makes us feel, because he’s been through it personally.

Another big reason that this story is so different from its competition is that it focuses on the aftermath of a suicide attempt. As I mentioned in my review of A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares, most books about mental health fail to discuss the importance of recovery. A character will self harm, attempt suicide, etc. and will rapidly bounce back so the story wraps up neatly. The alternative is that the character will be introduced to a recovery route, but it will often taken on a romanticized version instead. It’s Kind of a Funny Story and The Spectacular Now come to mind. Sure, the characters in those stories are mentally ill, but they seem to bounce through the recovery stages quicker because there’s a cute, quirky girl at their side who just *gets them*.

The Memory of Light focuses strictly on recovery: Vicky is introduced to group and individual therapy as well as medication. She meets a group of misfit kids who are also on the mental disorders ward, and with their help she learns that her mental illness has a name, that she shouldn’t fear it, that maybe it will always be there, but she can work with it. We watch Vicky make progress and grow, and as soon as we’re given some hope that she’s going to make it, she’s forced to go back to her home life, which viciously throws her off balance.

“There were moments of light in the past three weeks when I could see a future, moments of laughter and belonging and courage. But all I can feel right now is that someone turned on a light just long enough for me to see what I could never have, so that it would hurt me even more than if I had never seen it.”

As heartbreaking as this part of the story is, I felt like it was the most realistic and the most important. Vicky takes everything she learned during her stay in the ward and executes it in her real life. It’s uncomfortable, tense, and doesn’t always go according to plan. She’s not magically cured of her depression, but instead figures out how to understand herself and her emotions when she’s put back into the world that caused her to feel that way initially. Because that’s really how depression works. It doesn’t just disappear or go away on its own; instead, we have to rearrange our lives to incorporate it and manage it.

This story doesn’t exactly end on a happy note. We aren’t happy and smiling for Vicky because she’s changed and is completely cured of her mental illness. But we do get to root for her, because this book gives her the right tools to help herself, and her journey is only just beginning.

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