Review – The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa
Another review with minor spoilers not behind a reveal button
I heard such good reviews for The Memory Police that the excitement to read it was further heightened by the length of time it took to get a copy from the library. Due to “circumstances”, when it finally popped up on my library card, I could only read it on and off.
Reading in a bitty fashion is not what this book deserved.
So, conscious of that fact and of the loan return date, I took the last Sunday before Christmas and decided to bash it out before the loan expired.
It’s taken me a while to articulate my thoughts, to write a review as they are still swirling about, uncertain about meanings. Yet now I feel I can at least give a fairly coherent sum up. And I should as it was an excellent read.
The story is ostensibly about a woman (novelist) living on an island which is subject to an inexplicable rule. Foremost, objects are not a permanent feature of this world. Regularly, items natural (roses, fruit ,etc) or man made (photographs, calendars, etc) are removed from everyday life.
With the absence from public life of these objects. So too goes, the associated vocabulary, the sensation, history of interaction and knowledge. The memory of it is also automatically removed from the majority of citizens minds. The government body – the Memory Police ruthlessly enforce the ever evolving new regime by ensuring no memory or instance of the item remains. People who do not adhere to this rapidly changing way of life are disappeared.
The conflict arises with those who do not forget and the family and friends who support, love and care for them.
What a world!
Throughout reading my perpetual thought was how could you live life like that, knowing your world and experiences were gradually being reduced and nothing you could do, would alter that fact? Because whilst the people couldn’t remember what was lost, they knew that on a regular basis, objects were disappearing from the world along with the people who could not forget.
I stated prior to reading The Memory Police that it was likely to be poignant and it was. It made me reflective about what is memory? How do you make memories? What is the point of memories, because if you lose them, you have no recollection of what was lost. Is it sufficient to have had some, to have had the opportunity to recollect an experience?
Memory for me loosely is past events that are remembered, sustained by returning periodically to dwell on, enjoy or learn from
We follow the story of the novelist who rebels against this prevailing way of life.
So many questions
The narrative format allows the reader to get to know this strange world through the eyes of the novelist, alternating the present with the novelist’s new book she is writing. Similar to the world she inhabits, the novelist also creates a world in the book which has hidden depths and taunt tensions leading to shocking revelations. Unsettling all around.
Reading The Memory Police lead to many questions. I was forever stopping to ruminate, highlight or make a note in the e-book. And it didn’t matter that as I progressed, only some were answered and very few were to my satisfaction. The storytelling was so good that it seemed right that certain questions went unexplained.
A few of my questions are listed below
- What is the purpose of memory
- Why do memories matter
- What is humanity without knowledge of its history
- How can society function when functionality is removed
My take on The Memory Police is that it is about many things: loss, resistance, consent, control about the small things that matter.
What struck me the most was not so much losing the memory of things because as it played out here, once gone you did not feel the absence; the resonance was gone also. It was the actual list of items that slowly, then with more frequency was removed from the island. The order how things is lost is incomprehensible. I image that it would take a long time to see it for the oppression it is.
Even the snow conspires against them to not let them be able to walk around. They become house bound apart from essentials. A relatable feeling of 2020.
It made me take stock of the meaning behind objects, when the everyday items like flowers went missing. Because it’s more than a decorative, functional or helpful item. It’s what the object’s presence invokes: beauty, sentimentality and life.
What is human life, existence even, without beauty, idiosyncrasies and the mundane
Is it life, or a prescribed hell on earth.
Is this someone's warped vision of how the world and its people can be perfected, the root cause of this hellish place? That is never really answered and in a way didn't need to be.
Reading The Memory Police in 2020, gave it added resonance. 2020 was a year of loss of freedoms, implementation of restrictions, turmoil, absence, pain, uncertainty, financial impacts, and devastation all around. The list could go on.
An all round shit show.
Yet despite all of that. The world for the most part was resilient.
Because of hope. Determined dogmatism. Putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. Whatever you want to call it. People as in societies, (not individuals who were mostly traumatised by Covid-19) continue to make headway
And that is what is seen in the people on the island, they are stoic, taking these deprivations in their stride. They are better people than me. I am a complainer.
A novel in a novel
There are many things to like about this book, the narrative structure, the well drawn characters and world building. Another aspect that I can’t let go unsaid was the delicate way information was revealed. I didn’t realise just how chaotic the island was until I (the reader) was invested in the story and found myself, like the islanders equally wounded by this calamitous place.
My final point would be the parallel storyline which was played out in the novel. It’s a book that I would happy read, which is contradictory given that the storyline was …utterly heart-breaking and made me equal parts angry and sad. The appeal was in the believable insights into humanity’s worst instincts and conversely capacity to endure. A powerful revelation of human nature.
I believe this was part of the novelist's unspoken resistance, acknowledging the hurt and calling it out. Whilst resigned to knowing that there was no cure only acceptance of a fate that couldn't be changed (by the individual)
It takes a strong person to know and accept this about their lot.
I have used the words profound and masterpiece before when reviewing books, having now read The Memory Police, I can tell that was done (in many cases) erroneously. It is a quietly devastating read that all should experience.
4 Stars - Really Liked It