Happy Tuesday, bibliophiles!
I forget how exactly I came across this novel, but it was one of the first books that I put on my Libby wish list way back in March 2020, when I lived off of Kindle books. At the time it was always on hold for weeks when I tried to check it out, and so gradually, it faded to the bottom of the list. But after years of forgetting about it, I rediscovered this novel—and it was finally available! Usually, literary science fiction doesn’t always do it for me, but The Memory Police was a strangely quiet dystopia with a powerful undercurrent.
Enjoy this week’s review!
The Memory Police – Yōko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)
A young writer leads a quiet life on a distant, unnamed island, grieving a multitude of losses. Her parents passed away many years ago, but it isn’t just people that are disappearing—it’s objects, animals, and ideas as well: hats, birds, ribbons, and all manner of things. Once they disappear, nobody on the island has any recollection of their existence—they simply fade from public memory. And to enforce this, the island is under the iron fist of the Memory Police, who are there to make sure that these forgotten things stay that way. But she seems to be one of the only people who still clings to the memory of what’s been lost.
When the writer’s editor falls under suspicion from the Memory Police, she hatches a plan to hide him under her floorboards, silently completing her novel as they evade capture. And as more and more objects begin to fade into obscurity, her writing may be the only thing left to cling to.
TW/CW: loss of loved ones (past), kidnapping, police brutality
The Memory Police has been compared time and time again to 1984, and the comparison is clear, but it seemed to take a more literary approach. And while the “literary” part initially made me suspicious, this was one of the most creative and wholly human dystopian novels that I’ve read in a long time!
What sets The Memory Police apart from most other dystopias that you can think of is its perspective. We aren’t given an extensive history as to how the unnamed island came to be under such totalitarian rule, and how everything began disappearing and why. Nor do any of the characters—save for the main character’s editor, referred to only as ‘R’ in this translation—have names, save for their roles or jobs (the protagonist’s parents) or their physical appearance (the old man). All this book seeks to do is give you an ordinary person’s view into something haunting—the protagonist is just as confused as you are, and she is moving through this world in the only way that she can. Naturally, I was curious about the main plot points (how and why everything was disappearing, and how the Memory Police came to be), but I got that the point wasn’t to explain such things, but to see it happening firsthand through somebody else’s eyes, when they may know about as much as we do. I assumed the Memory Police were in control of what disappeared and they had some degree of immunity, which I was curious about, but the decision to omit these details at least made sense as a stylistic choice.
Make no mistake—The Memory Police is certainly haunting, but there’s a quietness to it that makes it stand out from the rest. In this state-surveilled, isolated island environment, this novel is the closest thing that you can get to a slice-of-life story. Other than some chilling instances involving break-ins by the Memory Police, it’s the story of one woman flying under the radar and trying to write her novel as the world is crumbling around her. There’s a constant fear surrounding everything, but in between, she finds time to craft a novel, share secret memories about her parents’ world and what they loved, and hold parties from an elderly man who helps keep her editor hidden. Sometimes, frightening change doesn’t come in the form of something obvious—it’s often slow and goes unnoticed, and it is the small things that keep us going through it.
Literary science fiction like this often comes off like it’s trying to be better than “regular” science fiction, like it boasts some lofty message that your common novel can’t possible get across. I’m glad to say that The Memory Police does none of that—some of the writing does fit that style, but nothing about it comes across as belittling or haughty. In fact, it has an incredibly powerful message. With all of the plot centering around the loss of memory and holding on to the last remnants of a past world, the ending made an incredibly powerful statement: as long as there is somebody around to keep a memory of something alive, memories never really die—they always stay with us. It’s a beautiful message on loss, and about resistance in general—maybe the most powerful thing we can do in the face of tyranny is to know that there is a way to change things, and hold memories of what our forebears did in the face of similar situations. This book is proof that dystopias don’t have to be flashy and overtly gritty to get their themes across—quietness can be just as powerful.
All in all, a nontraditional dystopia that made an incredible impact from reveling in its quiet moments. 4 stars!
The Memory Police is a standalone, but Yōko Ogawa is the author of many other novels that have been translated into several different languages, including Revenge, The Housekeeper and the Professor, Hotel Iris, and more.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!