I’ll admit, this isn’t as much a “first impression” as it is a cohesive after-thought. I picked up this book on the 11th and finished it the following day. (I have the tenacity to consume books at terrifying speeds.) This book has been on my radar since I spotted it on Amazon available for pre-order, set to be released in early August. I popped it into my “save for later” list and half-forgot about it until I realized that it was finally September, and that the book had already come out.

These were my very first thoughts upon finishing the book:

Holy shit holy shit holy shit?? What the fuck? What the fuck? What? How?? Why!! That is…what!! Oh my god!!

Now, it took a few moments for me to gather and organize those expletives into an actual, coherent review of The Memory Police. Because I’ll be honest, it leaves you shaking for a minute.

I put it up in the excerpt but I’ll repeat again just so that we’re all on the same page: this post contains SPOILERS for The Memory Police! If you would like to remain unspoiled, you can check out my Goodreads review here. The review, unlike this post, does not contain expletives.

So what exactly caused me to stare open-mouthed at the very last page of this book? Several things, actually. The first of which was just the sheer horror and haunting that the book leaves you with upon completion. It’s one of those instances in which the last line of the book is so powerful and devastating that you can’t quite believe that it’s actually over.

image of yoko ogawa's novel "the memory police"

Stylistically, I’m very much reminded of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Ogawa does not include very much detail about her characters other than a few necessary descriptors. Even names are largely left out and replaced with identifying epithets. “The old man,” “the ex-hat maker,” “R,” and “the Inuis,” are among a few of the tell-tale titles.

Thematically, I was instantly reminded of 1984*. An all-seeing, all-powerful government that keeps its population in close check by monitoring their lives and stealing people away in the middle of the night? Yep. Unfeeling government agents whose only purpose is to serve the all-powerful government without hesitation and to force the inhabitants into subservience by any means necessary. Double yep. The haunting presence of the Memory Police and the fear that anything might cause you to be taken? Super big yep.

However, there is something more elegant about The Memory Police that belies the tragedy and terror of 1984. There is far more peace and quiet than in Orwell’s Oceania; this quiet island, for all its horrors, is complacent and bleary-eyed against the force of the Memory Police. When they are forced to forget, they do so willingly and without thinking. It is a part of life on the island. Whereas in 1984, poor Winston Smith tries to fight against the control of the Thought Police, Ogawa’s narrator is complacent and forgets everything that she is told to—even her own body.

The narrator does not and cannot remember the things that have been “disappeared” from the island. The birds that her father once observed have long since vanished and the petals of the roses that disappear flow beautifully down the river and out to the ocean; those that watch the petals have already forgotten what a rose even looked like.

She does not fight against forgetting, but instead watches as these things leave her life—and the island—in peace. Things disappear and life changes, but it is never long before the island and its citizens have adapted to the change and go on about their life as if it was never even there to begin with. It strikes a certain peaceful dystopia, where people and items can disappear without warning and all continues as if they were never there at all.

Even the ceremonious destruction of things that have disappeared is solemn and morbid. When the novels are disappeared, the islanders gather up their books and burn them in massive bonfires. But there is no celebration—forgetting is not a things to celebrate—but they are not sad either. Instead, they watch as the very things that filled their shelves disappear from physicality and mentality, erased even from their memories and leaving nothing behind.

Those that do remember are in great danger. Anything that is remembered is a crime—anyone who remembers is a criminal. The Memory Police find and remove those who remember without warning and without ceremony. Nothing is safe on the island, nothing can be.

“The island is run by men who are determined to see things disappear. From their point of view, anything that fails to vanish when they say it should is inconceivable. So they force it to disappear with their own hands.”

Yoko Ogawa

The stakes grow more severe when the narrator realizes that her editor remembers everything. She hides him in a secret room in her house, and her life becomes marred by anxiety, worried that something, anything, will give her and her editor away.

Now, while the narrator is telling us the story of her life and life on the island, she also tells us a story that she is writing. She is a novelist (a problem that becomes quite apparent when the novels are disappeared) and she tells stories. Curiously, all of her stories involved something disappearing. The one she tells to us is about a typist who loses her voice. This tale is carried through and interwoven into the chapters with her own narrative.

These two stories are beautifully and horribly connected. The typist can only communicate to her lover through writing on a typewriter, and soon the keys become stuck and she can no longer talk to him. The narrator becomes stagnated when the Memory Police disappear novels and she can no longer tell stories. The typist’s lover takes her to the top of the belltower of the church where he gives typing lessons on the promise that he will repair her typewriter and she will be able to speak to him again. The narrator takes her editor to a secret room where he can hide until all is safe.

Soon, the typist begins to lose function of her body. She cannot speak and she cannot remember what her own voice used to sound like. She is unable to dress and wash herself and relies on her lover-turned-captor to help her. The narrator, too, struggles with her identity now that she can no longer write novels. Worse, she can no longer how to write novels or what novels are. These traces of memories only hurt her and cause her pain.

These two stories echo, mirror, and contrast one another in elegant harmony. It’s haunting and deeply beautiful.

It becomes clear that the story of the typist and the narrator’s life on the island are meant to be intrinsically connected. Once the Memory Police begin to disappear parts of people’s bodies, the typist’s story takes a similarly dark turn. I frantically read through page after page of the conclusion of the typist’s story, unable to break away from the horror and the fear that it brought.

A most painful element of the narrator’s story was the relationship between herself and her editor, R. R remembers everything and watches in agony as she begins forgetting things that have disappeared. The narrator watches R’s pain but cannot feel the anguish that his memories cause him because all of hers have vanished. Emerald. Harmonica. Ribbon. Ticket. These things mean nothing and everything to these two, and they struggle to understand one another hidden away in the secret room.

It’s the kind of story that makes you breathe out the words, “That’s fucked up.” It’s the same kind of story that makes you shake because you realize, “This could happen.” Not, of course, in the exact same way that it happens in the story, but in the same vein of dissolution of reality. Events that never occurred, conspiracies that are sequestered away, the constant pelting of the phrase, “Fake News.” It becomes unnervingly realistic even when it clearly isn’t.

Okay—beyond all of this rambling detailing the book’s trajectory (I warned you about spoilers!!) it’s such an incredibly well-written book. Much credit is deserved to Stephen Snyder for translating the book from Japanese. It’s coherent, clear, and well-structured; I’m certain that it was not an easy task, and I thank him for his time and dedication to bring this story to English.

I’m also desperately in love with the cover for this book. It’s so simple yet effective. I love the stamping of the title as if it’s a seal on the cover. In a way, it almost looks like a sticker for an award or nomination (which The Memory Police certainly deserves.) And the rough sketching removing parts of the photograph—genius. Every aspect of this cover is thought-out and well-designed. Obsessed.

If it hasn’t been clear enough already, yes! you should definitely** read this book. I’ll categorize this book as “calm dystopia,” or “1984 meets Xanax.” The subdued horror of the book really emphasizes the strangeness and ubiquitous nature of the two stories and how deeply connected they are in their elegance. 

*The most telling comparison being Orwell’s “Thought Police” compared against the creation of the “Memory Police” cannot be denied and is worth mentioning.

**I’d like to take this time to personally call out Google Drive’s auto-suggestion to change “absolutely” to “definitely.” Thanks?? That was a bit unnecessary but sure, go ahead??

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