The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa Pantheon

These days one can’t throw a racist member of the White House staff without hitting a work of fiction that directly reflects our current dystopia. And here’s another such novel—though the metaphors of Yoko Ogawa’s excellent new work, The Memory Police, could be applied to any number of oppressive states throughout the ages.

An unnamed female novelist lives on an unnamed island, where, ever-so-slowly, random normal objects (stamps, perfume, birds) are disappearing—and soon after, the very memories of these objects vanish as well. An authoritarian militia called the Memory Police enforces these disappearances, even going so far as to disappear citizens who refuse to comply. Instead of rising up against their tormentors, the majority of the islanders simply accept this weird fate, adapting to the inflicted changes—even as their jobs, family photographs, and eventually, body parts begin to disappear.

The incredibly prolific Ogawa (Revenge, The Housekeeper and the Professor) is masterful at telling complex narratives with awe-inspiring simplicity. It’s never really explained how the Memory Police erases these objects and memories. Instead, Ogawa entices the reader to look at this odd world from the perspective of her narrator: accepting what’s happening and adjusting accordingly. Other authors might crank the emotional drama up to 11, but Ogawa’s characters never boil over, despite the dire circumstances. They mourn their losses internally, and—in doing so—quietly assist their captors.

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There are threads of silent rebellion, however, even as the islanders fade into nothingness. The main character takes in and hides her married editor (who, mysteriously, has retained all his memories) in a secret room, perversely becoming both his savior and captor. The pair’s complicated and erotic romance turns into an act of political defiance, and even as memories of the outside world fade, they discover that the central tenets of their humanity cannot be erased.

While the reign of terror enacted by our current administration will probably (eventually? hopefully?) pass, Ogawa’s book is a simple, but powerful reminder of the forces—both political and sociological—that have been and always will be intent on taking away our most meaningful rights, and at a pace that’s so glacial, we hardly notice until they’re gone. The Memory Police is a thoughtful, brilliantly written wake-up call.