What remains after a memory is lost? Is it better to live without memories, or exist alone with all the memories everyone around you has lost? How do you live when objects, once precious or necessary, no longer hold any meaning for you? Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police asks all these questions and more. Masterfully translated by Stephen Snyder, Ogawa’s novel was a finalist for the International Booker Prize and the National Book Award, and rightfully so. It’s a perfect blend of Orwellian subterfuge and fantastical, almost fairy-tale elegy.

“The Memory Police” by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder, published by Pantheon Books

A nameless narrator lives on an enigmatic island ruled by the Memory Police, an all-knowing entity responsible for removing memories from the island residents. There appears to be little rhyme or reason behind the “disappearances” — ribbons, birds, roses, and so on. Not everyone loses their memories, however. A few people, like the narrator’s mother and her editor R, are curiously immune to the disappearances, and retain the memories of all that’s been lost. The narrator’s decision to hide R from the Memory Police forces her to reckon with just how stark the absence of memory can be.

Within the first few pages I was struck with hard Murakami Hard-boiled Wonderland vibes, but that impression quickly faded under the subtle power of Ogawa’s creeping prose. The world she describes borders on the absurd, yet remains real enough for the reader to empathize with the residents who must cope with the constant disappearances. The stark details of life on the nameless island, intermingled with sudden intrusions by the seemingly omniscient Memory Police, add a sense of rising anxiety taking the form of one question: what’s going to disappear next?

“Nothing comes back now when I see a photograph. No memories, no response. They’re nothing more than pieces of paper. A new hole has opened in my heart, and there’s no way to fill it up again.”

Ogawa deftly explores how memory and loss intertwine and alter how we interact with the world. The narrator and island residents each react to the island disappearances in different ways: resignation, sadness, denial, and so on. It’s a catalog of trauma responses I found all too easy to identify. The circumstances may be fantastical, but the consequences of such a loss are very real.

There is hope in this world, idealized in R’s persistence in encouraging the narrator and her friend, an old man, to try hard to remember what’s been disappeared. But I also picked up on a sense of growing resignation in the narrator and old man in the face of R’s hope which, as someone dealing with trauma myself, was all too relatable.

“And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.”

I’m usually leery about novels within novels, and was a bit turned off when that element was introduced in The Memory Police, but in the end I admit it was a useful tactic to explore the narrator’s psyche. As more things disappear — including novels — my anxiety and sense of hopelessness grew as well, until I was flying through the pages, knowing how it would end, but wondering nevertheless if it could end any other way. It’s not a neat, tidy ending, and honestly one that left me a bit depressed, despite the hints of hope. I don’t regret reading it, but perhaps I shouldn’t have picked it up during a worldwide pandemic.

Pearl Rating: 🦪🦪🦪🦪

Pick up a copy of The Memory Police wherever you find your books (preferably your local library or independent bookstore!).

Next review will be on Mieko Kawakami’s “Breasts and Eggs”

This review also appears on my other blog at Cat and Moth Writings.