The Memory Police

The Memory Police - Yōko Ogawa

[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

I hadn’t read anything by Ogawa in 10 years or so, and I admit I don’t really remember anymore all the details, but I do remember I tended to like this author. Hence my seizing the opportunity to get and read this one.

It is a strange story in a way, in that, all in all, the characters are not so memorable themselves (their names are never revealed), and yet still leave an impression due to what they are going through. As inhabitants of an island where certain things disappear from memory at random, they are constantly faced with not knowing what the next thing to go will be, with the Memory Police coming to enforce this by making sure people get rid of all traces of the now-forgotten things (including also getting rid of those who are able to remember), and where one question lingers at the back of many minds: will the people themselves be forgotten someday?

The novel follows a woman who writes novels for a living, and whose mother was one of the islanders who retained their memories. While the narrator is affected by the disappearances, and does her best to lie low and be an abiding citizen, she also does uphold a tiny streak of rebellion, up to the day she decides, with the help of an old friend of the family, to hide someone who remembers in a storage space between two floors. As the disappearances increase, and the Memory Police searches more and more homes and arrests more and more people, not only does she have to face the fear of being discovered, but also her fears of what will happen in the end.

This said, the story is less about the dystopian state of the island (the size of the island itself is never specified: it feels like a small island with just one town, and at the same time it must be bigger than that), or even about providing an explanation as to the collective, gradual amnesia taking hold, and more about memories, about how various things are important for us, about exploring what forgetting could mean In time, the inhabitants lose the names of what vanished, and even when presented with a surviving item that escaped the police, said item doesn’t elicit anything in them. And there lies another question: are memories precious in themselves, or only for as long as they feel precious to us? The narrator constantly struggles with this, as another character does their best to help her recover her memories of disappeared things and she’s never sure this can even happen.

Woven into the narrative is also the story the narrator (an author) is working on, that of a typist who’s lost her voice and communicates with her lover by writing on her typing machine. At first, I wondered how this was supposed to tie with the main story, and was a little afraid it was here for flavouring more than anything else—but it does tie with it at some point, and in a very relevant way.

Conclusion: 3.5 to 4 stars. In terms of narrative and of memorable characters, this is not the most striking book ever, but it has the sort of gripping, haunting quality that won’t let go.