Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

I think I’ve recovered enough from the devastating effects of this beautiful novel to finally share my review with you guys. I mean, I’m going to do my best, but this incredible piece of fiction just does so much with such a gentle touch that I barely know where to begin. Here we go.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Genre: Dystopian fiction

Length: 288 pages

Publisher: Harvill Secker

Other bits: translated by Stephen Snyder; 2019 National Book Award finalist; New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year


There’s a nameless island somewhere in a nameless sea where things – and sometimes, people – disappear. It starts off small, with things like hats and ribbons. Then a little bigger, as inhabitants are forced to say goodbye to birds, roses, even books. And the Memory Police are there to *ahem* oversee the disappearances. But there are some who can’t forget, and that fact alone puts them and their loved ones in danger.

When a young novelist learns that her editor and friend, R, is at risk of being picked up by the Memory Police, she comes up with a plan to keep him safe right under the floorboards of her home. As the world around them seems to fall away one day at a time, they hold on tighter than every to her writing as a lifeline to the past and their own existence.

My thoughts

In a word: devastating. One of those rare books that whack you so hard over the head with the feels that you need a week or so to recover emotionally before getting into your next read. Ogawa’s novel traverses a wide range of themes, but if I had to describe the whole book in a teeny tiny nutshell I’d say it’s a perfect narrative representation of loss in its myriad forms.

We’re dropped into life on this unnamed island where right away, something just isn’t right. You can feel it. Maybe you can’t put your finger on it, but something’s definitely off.

The island is stirred up after a disappearance. People gather in little groups out in the street to talk about their memories of the thing that’s been lost. There are regrets and a certain sadness, and we try to comfort one another. If it’s a physical object that has been disappeared, we gather the remnants up to burn, or bury, or toss into the river. But no one makes much of a fuss, and it’s over in a few days.

The Memory Police

As you settle into what you’ll soon discover is quite an unsettling novel, you’ll realise that this is the same “can’t put my finger on it” sense of unease that the characters experience whenever something is disappeared from the island.

Disappeared from the island? What? Huh?

Enter, the Memory Police. Men in sharp uniforms with even sharper jawlines and zero mercy. When something disappears, most of the inhabitants dispose of and forget about that thing without much thought; but there are some islanders who don’t forget the things that the Memory Police disappear. And that very fact puts a target on their backs.

The narrative contains a story-within-a-story; the protagonist is herself a writer in the middle of a novel about a young typist who loses her voice. This sub-narrative becomes entangled with her life, starting off as a gentle love story and mutating into something far more sinister as things go from bad to worse in her world and more things – and people – are disappearing.

Above all, this is a story about loss. Loss of people from our lives, be it through death or distance, loss of memory, loss of things to the wear and tear that comes with time; loss of entire body parts, loss of movement, loss of liberty.

So…yeah. Please read this book. It’ll ruin you for a week, then you won’t be able to stop talking about it.


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