May 27, 2020

Review: The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa

Book cover of The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Title: The Memory Police

Author: Yoko Ogawa

Publisher: Pantheon Books

Date of Publication: August 13th, 2019 (first pub. 1994)

Number of Pages: 274

See it on Goodreads: The Memory Police


A haunting Orwellian novel about the terrors of state surveillance, from the acclaimed author of The Housekeeper and the Professor.

On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses—until things become much more serious. Most of the island's inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few imbued with the power to recall the lost objects live in fear of the draconian Memory Police, who are committed to ensuring that what has disappeared remains forgotten.

When a young woman who is struggling to maintain her career as a novelist discovers that her editor is in danger from the Memory Police, she concocts a plan to hide him beneath her floorboards. As fear and loss close in around them, they cling to her writing as the last way of preserving the past.

Review - Without memories we cease to exist 

Yoko Ogawa is one of the authors that I will read any book, without even reading its premise. I have loved every single one of her books that I've read so far, and for this, I picked The Memory Police with high expectations. Although I have to admit that I read the premise, before picking it up. For a person that loves the work of Yoko Ogawa, I was late to learn of this book's existence. I discovered it when I read that it was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2020. But with so much hype, would it live up to it?

And with this introduction, I can start writing my review.

Let's begin with the premise. We are on an island somewhere. Life there seems to go on like everywhere else in the world. The only difference is that things are disappearing. But disappearing doesn't mean that they cease to exist. Simply, one morning the citizens wake up and have forgotten everything about them. So, they find every single one of the disappeared items in their possession and destroy them. For example, when the roses disappear, people destroy their gardens and throw their flowers in the river. On top of that, there is the Memory Police, which is a force that takes care of all the items left behind, and people who don't seem to forget. Their way is brutal, as they arrest people in the middle of the night, enter any house without an excuse, check people's papers at random times.

Reading this premise, I half expected that The Memory Police will have some sort of political element. In fact, it is about an oppressive force that controls every aspect of people's lives. Thus, I was reading with the expectation that I would learn who the Memory Police actually are and what is their objective. I also expected some sort of resistance against them by the protagonist. You can clearly see in your mind what kind of story I mean. However, I'm glad that I was wrong.

The protagonist is a novelist. This alone seems like an odd fact. How can you write stories, when you have lost so many things from your memory? And it's not just those things. Even other memories that might contain these things get faded and are lost forever. The protagonist writes a story about a typewriter who has lost her voice. We get to read her story in some chapters and it echoes what the protagonist is experiencing, yet in a more dramatic way.

The protagonist is one of the people the forget things. When she finds out that her editor is one of those who can't forget, she decides to create a hiding place for him in her house. So, the protagonist, the editor, and the old man who helps the protagonist form a small group. The three of them try to live their lives as best as they can, given the circumstance. Their resistance to the memory loss comes from these small, every day things. They celebrate the old man's birthday, even though there are no longer calendars, they taste lemon candies, even though they have already disappeared. The editor is trying to make them remember all the things they have lost. The protagonist and the old man humor him, even though it is hopeless.

The protagonist is a very likable person. She tries to live her life as quietly as possible. She cares deeply for the old man and she cares deeply about the editor. She knows that her heart is filled with holes due to disappearances and she envies the editor that can still remember everything. "But as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow", as she tells. She has the clarity to realize where things are heading. In fact, while going through the book to find some quotes, I spotted one early on the book, where she more or less expresses what will happen in the end. Even so, she doesn't offer any resistance. Yes, it would be futile but when the time comes, she just accepts it.

You may have noticed that I haven't used a name for any of the characters, not even the protagonist. The thing is that the author hasn't named anyone. Of course, we have some side characters like the Inuis, but all the important characters for the story are nameless. Odd as it may seem, this didn't stop me from empathizing with the characters.

Memories are precious things that make us who we are. Losing them is like losing yourself. People on this island deal with this every day. They know that one morning they might not have a job because it would have disappeared. Eventually, novels are disappearing and our protagonist is forced to find another job. When this incident happens, everyone goes out in the streets and burns books. It is a sad scene and one that made me cry. For the protagonist, writing novels was her identity and it was ripped out of her.

This book takes a truly unique perspective, that of the oppressed people who try to live their lives with what they have left. It is not a big rebellion story and it doesn't end in anything grande. It's about people, living half-lives, and knowing that sooner or later things will end. The uncertainty numbs every emotion.

Yoko Ogawa's writing complements this type of story. The language is simple, natural, and subtle. If I tried to find ways to describe it, I would say that it's like a little stream slowly running into a river that eventually reaches the sea. The writing is full of emotions, even though the characters almost never express them.

All in all, The Memory Police is a great read. If you are familiar with Yoko Ogawa's style, then you already know what to expect. However, I can understand that this novel will not be everyone's cup of tea. It lacks a climax and everything is quiet and subtle. Therefore, if you aren't in the mood for something like that, you will not enjoy it. For my part, I can only say the I was mesmerized by the prose, I felt for the characters, and I was terrified by the implications of losing one's memories. I will leave you with another quote from the book:

   “Would you really like to remember all the things you’ve lost?” R asked.
   I told him the truth. “I don’t know. Because I don’t even know what it is I should be remembering. What’s gone is gone completely. I have no seeds inside me, waiting to sprout again. I have to make do with a hollow heart full of holes. That’s why I’m jealous of your heart, one that offers some resistance, that is tantalizingly transparent and yet not, that seems to change as the light shines on it at different angles.”

Read more of my reviews here.


  1. I'm glad you posted a full review for this book, because I am really intrigued by it! I don't read many books that don't really have a climax to them, but if the prose is that good, then I can totally appreciate that.

    1. It's one of the things I love about Japanese literature! I have even tried some things on my own book (for example I haven't named anyone). And the good thing is that the tone is never heavy, so you can easily read it, even if your unfamiliar with the style.

  2. I love magical realism! But maybe I wouldn't fare well with a book without an actual plot, you know? though I get what this book is trying to accomplish.


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