How do you describe a book that is best not described? That is the conundrum I’ve found myself in when trying to talk about The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. It is a beautiful, haunting, touching and disturbing read very much grounded in the real. When you describe the plot, however, it sounds like a fantastical and dystopian work with possible tendencies toward heavy handed allegory. I was hesitant to pick it up myself after reading the synopsis, but I’ve absolutely adored other books by the author (The Diving Pool is a standout) and knew I had to give it a try. I was well rewarded and I think you will be as well.
Now let’s get that problematic plot out of the way.
The unnamed protagonist, a young novelist who recently lost both her parents and now lives alone, resides on a very peculiar, also unnamed, island. The residents wake up every so often and find they have forgotten that a specific object (a hat, a bird, a rose) exists. The objects then cease to exist in the world. While this is definitely disturbing at first, the residents come to accept it and eventually forget the object ever existed in the first place.
A very few people, however, are not subject to this forgetting. It is the job of the Memory Police, a sinister lot in well pressed uniforms, to find these people and take them out of the community; to where exactly, no one knows. The young novelist discovers that her editor is one of those who can remember and with the help of an older neighbor, decides to hide him in a basement compartment of her house.
So yeah, not your standard storyline.
Don’t let the fantastical nature of the plot scare you off though. The relationships between the characters, and Ogawa’s plain but haunting use of language, are the real stars here. Their thoughts and feelings are described in such a straight forward and seemingly plausible way, that you too come to accept the seemingly impossible.
As with most of the author’s work, however, there is a sense of unseen menace behind the plain language. It is hard to describe, but the lead character captured my own feelings about this novel, while describing her own work:
I myself wasn’t sure what would happen next. The story seemed simple and pleasant enough, but I had a feeling it might take a frightening turn.
So, if you don’t mind a frightening turn or two, and appreciate really great writing, definitely check out The Memory Police.