A haunting Orwellian novel about the terrors of state surveillance, from the acclaimed author of The Housekeeper and the Professor.
On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses—until things become much more serious. Most of the island’s inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few imbued with the power to recall the lost objects live in fear of the draconian Memory Police, who are committed to ensuring that what has disappeared remains forgotten.
When a young woman who is struggling to maintain her career as a novelist discovers that her editor is in danger from the Memory Police, she concocts a plan to hide him beneath her floorboards. As fear and loss close in around them, they cling to her wiring as the last way of preserving the past.
The Memory Police is a haunting and absorbing novel which examines what it means to be human and if it is possible to retain a sense of self, in a society where memories are steadily being erased. The novel poses such interesting questions; What is the real importance of memory? Are we the same once we start losing these intrinsic memories? How does the loss of even a minor object like a rose or ribbon affect us? Do objects cease to have meaning once we disregard them? There’s a lot of food for thought with this novel for sure. I’ll say right now, if you’re into plot based novels and prefer more action and definitive direction in the books you read then this may not be the right book for you, as it’s a lot more slow paced, character based and philosophical in nature.
The story takes place on an unnamed island, where items routinely disappear both physically and in the minds of the inhabitants. However, there are some people who are able to retain their memories, while those around them go on as normal. Due to this, The Memory Police, a sinister and mysterious organisation round up those who remember and take them away, never to be seen again. The protagonist – also unnamed – is a writer, who hides her editor R in a secret underground room in her home, after she fears he may be taken away by the Memory Police.
“Memories are a lot tougher than you might think. Just like the hearts that hold them.”
The prose is simple and not overly descriptive, but still manages to ‘say’ so much. I love when writers can translate such range and complexity without having to beat around the bush and Yoko Ogawa certainly has this skill. I highlighted so many quotes which were so plain but beautiful and meditative. It’s hard to really describe how this book and Ogawas writing made me feel, other than haunted and so still, it was definitely very unique in my experience.
“If you read a novel to the end, then it’s over. I would never want to do something as wasteful as that. I’d much rather keep it here with me, safe and sound, forever.”
As well as the writing style and tone really affecting me, I loved the vital current of tension which was emanating from each page. As the protagonist takes in her editor R and hides him in a secret room in her house, she is constantly stuck between anxiety and a muted happiness in the small moments she is able to share with him. The threat of the Memory Police is ever present, both for the characters and in the mind of the reader, and this is reinforced multiple times as they have surprise raids and visits every day or so. It all felt so fraught with sadness and melancholy, but it’s the human connections in the novel which add small glimmers of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape.
The relationship between the protagonist and R for instance, is so interesting and tragic in a way, as she loses herself with every disappearance and subsequently loses her memory, he is also losing her at the same time but is fully aware as this happens. I also loved the old man, who the protagonist has known since childhood, he was such a kind character and such a source of comfort for the protagonist as they navigate the strange happenings on the island together. The fact none of the characters are given names just adds a sense of universality – that this story could be taking place anywhere and at anytime, and it’s quite eery.
‘’I sometimes wonder what I’d see if I could hold your heart in my hands.’’
I’ll also mention the fact that there is a lot left unanswered or unexplained in this novel. But this is sort of part and parcel of the kind of story this is and adds something so necessary. The fact that there is so much the reader doesn’t know or must theorise, kind of sums up the nature of the book itself, a story where there are gaps and absences. I would have liked to have found out these answers, such as how The Memory Police were formed, why they want to subdue those who remember and why they don’t lose their memories too but alas, I don’t think we’ll ever know and I’m kind of okay with that?
Overall, I would definitely recommend this to readers who enjoy stories set in a dystopian world of sorts which has immersive prose and a story which will stay on your mind long after it comes to an end. While I haven’t read any of Ogawa’s other books before, I’m definitely going to be adding them to my TBR now!
Until next time,