Author: Yoko Ogawa
First Published: August 13, 2019
Genres: Dystopia, Magical Realism, Speculative Fiction
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 writing as the last way of preserving the past.
The Memory Police is one of the most disorienting and haunting novels that I had ever read. It felt like watching a black and white movie on a projector with film that is slowly deteriorating. The story centers on an island where things disappear, both physically and from memory. The forgetting is enforced by an ominous police force known simply as the memory police that ensures that every forgotten thing is eliminated entirely.
The narrator is a young woman, afflicted with the same memory loss as many of the island’s inhabitants, that covets forgotten things that have been hidden away in her house. She is accompanied by an old family friend and her editor, a married man that she falls in love with. The unnamed editor does not forget like the other inhabitants of the island, so the narrator decides to hide him away to protect him from the memory police.
“His soul is too dense. If he comes out, he’ll dissolve into pieces, like a deep-sea fish pulled to the surface too quickly. I suppose my job is to go on hiding him here at the bottom of the sea.”
There is a story within this story that further supports the feeling of isolation and of a life that is hidden away from view, very much like the targeted groups that were historically hidden away during times of authoritarian rule. This novel is political in that it very directly confronts censorship by the state, and it echoes the real-life censoring of the atrocities committed by the Japanese government during World War II. The actions of the Japanese government during the war match that of Germany in brutality, yet this piece of history is often glossed over in the greater narrative of World War II, and scholars that are so bold to discuss these atrocities are denounced.
The novel evokes a sense of sadness as everything is slowly forgotten, leaving behind holes in the lives of the inhabitants. The tone feels like the memory of a life that is being forgotten over time, with more and more details blotted out and the story itself begins to feel hazy. Despite the disappearances, people carry on with their lives making do with what they have left, and I feel that is something that is true to life as we age and our bodies deteriorate. A brilliant novel that left me feeling chilled and uncomfortable up to the very end, it is an experience that is unlike anything I had ever felt while reading.