The unnamed heroine lives on an island where things disappear. One day, you just wake up and realize something is missing—or rather, removed entirely by the Memory Police. This secret police organization arbitrarily decides what memories are illegal, then they round up everything and anyone who might prevent the memory from dying out. The heroine, a writer, begins to fear for the safety of her editor R, who has an unusually good memory and stubborn mental resistance. Can she manage to hide him, all the while losing her own memories of what is real?
This book was written in 1994 by Yōko Ogawa and translated to English for the first time last year. It was a 2019 finalist for the National Book Award for Translated Literature, and this year it’s on the shortlist for the Booker International Prize. I was intrigued by the concept and was really hoping to love the novel.
I did enjoy the first half or so of the book. It is written in a rather simplistic, quaint style, which is easy to read and descriptive without being overbearing. The main character lives a simple life, writing her book, consulting her editor R, and visiting her elderly friend who lives on an old boat. “Cozy” is the word I’d use… it starts out very sweet and cozy, in spite of the unfortunate disappearances—birds, roses, and hats, for starters. There is definitely an atmosphere of Nazi Germany or modern-day North Korea, with the activities of the Memory Police, but this begins on the periphery of the narrator’s experiences, and so she is able to carry on her simple life for a while without any big changes.
Interestingly, it’s mentioned that her mother had been taken away by the Police, but it doesn’t seem to have caused the narrator any trauma. I had to assume she was, to some degree, desensitized by the environment she grew up in. This resignation doesn’t quite fit the rest of the book, though (more on that in a moment).
Everything started to fall apart for me around the 60% mark. Minor spoilers ahead…
The professional relationship between the narrator and R eventually escalates into an all-out affair. R, as it is, is married with a pregnant wife, but the narrator contrives to hide R in her own house, purportedly for his protection. I was willing to accept the narrator had a crush on R—that’s plausible enough—but not only did she walk right into the lions’ den on this one, she built the lions’ den. And that made me really uncomfortable. I thought it was disgusting of her to separate a husband from his wife like that, and not to let R off the hook, he was pretty horrid, too.
Not only that, the narrator effectively blames the Memory Police for her desperate behavior and relationship with R. I’m again struggling to understand how these recent experiences are more traumatic than her mother’s abduction. Just not buying it.
The other thing that I loathed about this novel was the narrator’s book, a work in progress. Now, one of my biggest pet peeves is “meta” stories: books about books, or movies about movie stars, etc. Can hardly stand them. However, what really baked my biscuits was how AWFUL the narrator’s book was. It was literally about a student-teacher relationship turned into sexual slavery, in increasingly elaborate detail.
From that point, I really had trouble reading the book and taking it seriously. I probably wouldn’t have finished it if I were not so far along in it (and wanting to stay on track with my Goodreads challenge). I despised the “heroine,” I despised her book, and I really couldn’t find any other reason to care.
I realize this is a pretty strong opinion; I usually try to find the silver lining in books. But the ambiguous ending did nothing to change my mind, and I was left feeling (quite honestly) bitter and cold towards the characters. Oh well… I am still looking for the great dystopian novel.