I don’t do too many reviews on this blog because I don’t necessarily know if you guys would want to hear my opinions on the many weird and varied reads that I pick up, but I just finished reading two incredible novels by the Japanese author Yoko Ogawa—Memory Police and The Housekeeper & the Professor—and I really wanted to share my thoughts.
The only reason I came across this book was because we had just gotten the English translation in at the library I work at and I immediately picked it up before anyone else could. But I’m so glad I did.
This book is a dystopian masterpiece. It’s such a short read and yet it’s so powerful I couldn’t help but take breaks to keep myself from getting overly anxious for the characters’ wellbeing.
The book takes place on an unnamed island where things are regularly disappeared. And not just in the they’re-no-longer-sold-in-stores disappeared. As in, gone-from-your-memory-forever disappeared. It’s never specified how the government (who is presumably responsible for this) accomplishes this but it’s clear that they are not 100% successful as there are some that are still capable of remembering the things they are not meant to remember. Because of this, they employ the Memory Police, whose job is to find those people and remove them from society.
The main character, an unnamed writer of novels, has seen her father’s profession disappear, her mother disappear, and when she realizes her editor is capable of remembering, she knows he will be next. She takes upon herself to build a safe place for him and harbor him from the Memory Police, as her own world is quickly disappearing.
This book was immensely compelling and a super interesting read. I didn’t fully understand until after I finished it and was discussing it with a coworker who had just started reading it that the things themselves are not the focus of the memory loss but rather the way that these things made the characters feel. It is the emotional attachment and the memories associated with the item that are lost when something is “disappeared” and that makes it even more devastating when important things start disappearing from the characters’ lives.
It had a bleak ending, I’m not gonna lie to you. There is no triumph over the oppressive government force in this book, but it is a powerful ending just the same. It left me thinking about the weight of memory in the human soul and how much what we love shapes us.
The Housekeeper & the Professor
It appears Yoko Ogawa is interested in memory because it plays a part in this novel as well. Here, it affects only one character and it shapes the lives of the people around him.
This book is about the lives of a housekeeper and her son after she begins working for a retired professor. He was in an accident in 1975 that severely damaged his brain and made it impossible for him to remember anything after 80 minutes. Which means that, every 80 minutes, his memory resets to 1975. The housekeeper develops a bond with the older professor and her, her son, and the professor forge a friendship that carries well after her employment with him ends.
It was a very slim volume and it was much more slice-of-life than Memory Police, but I feel like it left me just as cathartic. There was something really consuming about the relationship between the characters that made me want to keep reading and see how their lives developed. Even though there was no real “action,” it didn’t feel slow or dull and I was invested in their lives until the last page.
Yoko Ogawa is such an interesting author because she can tackle a subject like memory and the impact on the soul in such diverse ways and make them both impactful. I wish more of her work was translated and I wish that she wrote more novels (I’m not a huge fan of short stories, I get too invested and then it ends) but I’m grateful to have read this too.