Monday, 19 August 2019

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
First published in Japanese in Japan in 1994. English language translation by Stephen Snyder published by Vintage on the 15th August 2019.

One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads and my Book Of The Month for August 2019

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hat, ribbon, bird, rose. To the people on the island, a disappeared thing no longer has any meaning. It can be burned in the garden, thrown in the river or handed over to the Memory Police. Soon enough, the island forgets it ever existed.

When a young novelist discovers that her editor is in danger of being taken away by the Memory Police, she desperately wants to save him. For some reason, he doesn’t forget, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for him to hide his memories. Who knows what will vanish next?

The Memory Police is a beautiful, haunting and provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss, from one of Japan’s greatest writers.

I previously loved reading a collection of Yoko Ogawa's short stories, Revenge, so enthusiastically grabbed my copy of The Memory Police when it appeared on NetGalley. The novel was first published in Japanese twenty-five years ago and has only just been translated into English - an amazingly good job by the talented Stephen Snyder. The Memory Police is the novel that I had hoped If Cats Disappeared From The World would be - dark, mysterious, and, actual impossibility aside, scarily real.

Ogawa vividly portrays a science fiction dystopia where an island people have grown so used to abruptly being deprived of things that the loss of something more barely provokes a comment. Once deemed Disappeared, any surviving examples of an item are swiftly, voluntarily destroyed by the populace and once out of sight, these items are soon out of mind. The hatmaker retrains as an umbrella maker when hats Disappear. The ferryman is employed as a night watchman when boats Disappear. The words themselves quietly fade from the language and, soon, most people are rarely even aware they have lost anything at all. Except for those few unfortunates who find themselves genetically incapable of simply forgetting. These individuals who tempt danger by hiding Disappeared things are the prey of the Memory Police. Anyone caught also Disappears - dragged from their homes while their neighbours look the other way.

I couldn't help but think of Anne Frank's Diary while reading The Memory Police. I saw clear parallels with 1940s stories of hidden Jews and with the present-day re-emergence of fascist ideologies not only in authoritarian declarations of what is and is not considered acceptable to this society, but, more importantly, in the way most of the people seemed incapable of raising themselves to any form of resistance. Everything they had known was gradually being taken from them, but the prevailing wisdom was to make do and manage without, not to draw unwelcome attention to oneself, not to make a fuss.

The Memory Police is a superb depiction of human behaviour and manipulation. I loved the authenticity of Ogawa's characters. I could understand and empathise with all their actions and frequently found myself questioning how I might also react under those circumstances. I was completely enthralled from start to finish. There is an element of a fairytale to the storytelling style with the unnamed people on an unnamed wintry island. Aspects of their culture are recognisably Japanese, but this could be anyone anywhere. It's a haunting fable of how we construct our identities. How much of ourselves is determined by our memories? How free are we really if everything available to us is determined by someone else?

Etsy Find!
by Northfork Vintage Shop in
Georgia, USA

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Books by Yoko Ogawa / Dystopian fiction / Books from Japan


  1. Great review! It's always great to find a 5 star read!

    1. Yes! I wasn't sure what to expect from this one so was extra delighted!

  2. Oh wow, this sounds absolutely amazing. After loving her stories, I am glad you could love this one so much too. I love science fiction and I think sci fi at it's best should allow you to draw the parallels you do and think about real life too.

    1. The Memory Police was an amazing read! It's one that got me thinking deeply as well as thoroughly enjoying the story