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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