The Memory Police
By Yoko Ogawa, Translated by Stephen Snyder
Vintage, 9781101911815, July 2020, 288pp.
The Short of It:
Ethereal and beautiful, tinged with sadness.
The Rest of It:
On a remote island, random objects begin to disappear. Birds, roses, ribbons, etc. The inhabitants wake to a feeling of change yet can’t put their finger on what has changed until they interact with others on the island. The strange thing is that the feeling that the disappearance causes precedes the actual disappearance which is followed through to completion by the inhabitants themselves. So when roses disappear, the inhabitants gather up all the roses to destroy them and send them down a river.
The disappearances are enforced by the Memory Police. How they know when someone is holding out is not explained but if someone tries to preserve something that has disappeared, they are taken away. Eventually, when all traces are removed, most of the inhabitants can no longer recall the item at all. All memory of the item has disappeared as well. But there are some who never forget. The memories of these items remain in them, and for some, they’ve even been able to preserve the actual item, such as a piece of candy. As living becomes more difficult and the situation more dire, you can’t help but compare what is going on with Orwell’s 1984.
The three main characters are for the most part, unnamed. Our protagonist, a young woman, lost both her parents and lives a solitary life. She is a writer and befriended by her editor, only known as “R” and a kind old man who knew her mother. The three navigate these disappearances as best they can but “R” happens to be one of the people who can remember and so he must go into hiding with their help. What will disappear next?
This story is beautifully written. I found myself rereading many passages as I went along. The author’s skill at evoking a particular memory is especially wonderful. I found myself mourning all the things we have lost during this pandemic. The smell of a wonderful meal, served to me in a bustling restaurant filled with laughter and happy people. Or I found myself missing movie theatres and that anticipation you feel when the previews roll or the smell of hot buttered popcorn while sitting back to enjoy a really good film. The story made me feel all kinds of things. Yes, it made me a little sad but also hopeful because I am fairly certain that the tangible things we’ve lost during this pandemic are only temporary losses, not like the ones in the story.
The author’s inspiration was Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. This makes sense when you consider the hiding that must take place to keep these people safe. The Memory Police is a wonderful read. I have found a new favorite author in Ogawa and can’t wait to read another book by her.
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17 thoughts on “Review: The Memory Police”
Lovely review, I loved this one. You’re so right about those things we are missing at the moment. For me it is busy coffee shops, chatting for hours to friends, the empty cups building up. And the theatre.
Yes. Both my kids are involved with theatre so we are really missing live theatre. My Hamilton tix were cancelled twice. Now we hope to go in Jan 2022.
Ti, I’m so happy you enjoyed Ogawa’s book. Her writing is excellent. I think you will definitely love reading more of her work. And your post was terrific – really showed us just how much you enjoyed the book 🙂
Her writing really soothed me even though it was a somewhat terrifying subject to write about. The loss of memory, no matter how it happens, is always frightening, I think.
It’s such an interesting premise that someone is controlling the memories. Great review!
I’ve seen other reviews of this book and didn’t think I was interested, but your remarks have convinced me that I need to give it a try. Adding it to my huge list!
The evocative manner in which the author tells the story is something I think you’d quite enjoy.
Nicely reviewed. I like how you compared it to today’s pandemic of things disappearing. I read this in 2020 and liked it quite a bit. Its story is unsettling … with her editor hidden in the small cell under her floorboards, which freaked out my claustrophobia. There’s also that weird part about the novel the main character writing about a typist who becomes imprisoned by a teacher. There’s a lot within this simply told story!
The story within a story worked nicely here. That story could be discussed all by itself.
This sounds wonderful! I bought it at an independent bookstore way back in the day when people could travel for conferences and go into independent bookstores in the cities where the conferences were being held. A different time!
Break it out! It was really quite good to read now, during the pandemic. I could relate to a lot of the loss outlined in the story.
This is one I never considered until reading your thoughts. It seems like it’s well written and different as well.
I think my experience with this book was particularly good given that I am missing so many things right now. It felt very timely. It’s very different. Not like anything I’ve read. Maybe a little like Murakami but mildly so.
I have read short stories by Yōko Ogawa and loved her writing. You make me want to read this novel of hers too.
I will definitely be reading more of her work.
I am so glad that you loved this book. I felt more or less the same as you did. So many parallels between the book and our real world despite them being about completely different experiences. Your notes about how it made you think about what you are missing due to the pandemic is so spot on!
I don’t know that I could read this one during the pandemic for that precise reason — things disappearing.