If you’ve ever been transfixed by a one-of-a-kind item found in an antique shop, drawn into a world far from your own, wondering what kind of juicy stories that item could share, then “The Memory Book: One Woman’s Self-Discovery in the Mist of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy” by Linda Fischer is your kind of story.
Mesmerised by a leather-bound, turn-of-the-century memory book once owned by a young Hungarian girl named Amálka, and driven by her thirst for information – not the least of which is just who this young girl was – Fischer took her experience to another level. She spent nine years traveling through the former Austro-Hungarian region, retracing the steps of young Amálka, all the while soaking up the rich history and culture of the area.
She records these experiences – much the same way as Amálka did – in “The Memory Book”. This result is an informed travelogue, rich in historical context and peppered with Old Hungarian poetry, that takes readers through the personal memoirs of not only the little girl but of the author herself.
From the very beginning, when the author discovers the unique journal at a Budapest antique shop, the story is about Fischer’s journey to discover the girl. Her travels take her to familiar centres in the former imperial realm, such as Vienna, as well as to more unusual spots, including the heart of historical Hungary in Transylvania – and work much like an early 20th-century travel guide to the empire.
Much like the author, the reader yearns to discover more clues about the mysterious girl from the past; and just like the author, the reader discovers the area along the way. The backdrop is no less than one of the most important eras in historical Hungary – the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It is a compelling read for anyone who loves history, culture, literature or the region – or has ever before been consumed by an obsessive quest.
Memory books: then and now
More than this, Fischer provides a unique way of discovering a land that to you may be very foreign or all-too-familiar. It allows the reader to view the region, its people and its culture through the eyes of a young, curious girl or through those of a seasoned, inquisitive traveler.
This is not your average memoir or travelogue; it is an engrossing experience that allows you to discover the lives of two women – divided by a century and yet intertwined in their desire to share their memories.
As one reviewer confessed: “Last summer I travelled and took ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, the former best-selling book about a woman who discovers herself through travels through East Asia. This summer I’d take [“The Memory Book”]. It’s about connections and community, time travel in the best of ways.”
Memory books were an important part of culture for many young girls in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire – a place where they could keep track of their hopes and dreams, their passions and travels, and those loved and lost.
Fischer’s “The Memory Book” offers a welcome modern addition to this tradition, admittedly for an adult audience. Her passion for the history, culture, literature and people of the region shine through and readers will find themselves illuminated through her own experiences. While sharing in this once-popular pastime for girls is sure to appeal more to the female-oriented “Eat, Pray, Love” audience, there is enough insight, intelligence, and introspection to keep even the most knowledgeable Hungarophiles interested.
So if you’re looking for the Austro-Hungarian equivalent to “Eat, Pray, Love”, an engrossing summer travel companion or an interesting primer into turn-of-the-century Austro-Hungary, pick up a copy of Fischer’s “Memory Book”. Or you could pop into an antique story and begin your own nine-year journey…
4 out of 5 stars [5 out of 5 stars for women] “The Memory Book: One Woman’s Self-Discovery in the Mist of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy”, Linda Fischer, 326 pages, paperback, Minted Prose LLC, EUR 16.50.