Book Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Rating:  ★★★★

I have no idea how to even begin describing this.  The publisher’s described as Orwellian and I suppose it is very Orwellian in tone, but the plot and world building are very different than 1984.

The premise is this: on an unnamed island, things sometimes “disappear”.  If the islanders don’t rid themselves of the things that disappear, the Memory Police may raid their house to take the items away.  Eventually the people forget all about the disappeared-thing (for example, if flowers disappear people stop remembering that flowers ever existed and don’t even know the meaning of the word).  But some people don’t forget.  Those people are eventually discovered by the Memory Police and taken away, never to be seen or heard again.

So we follow an unnamed protagonist as she navigates this surreal landscape and things and people disappear around her.  It’s a meandering sort of story that ultimately feels largely allegorical, but no matter how hard I think about what the story might mean I keep coming up empty handed (aside from the obvious message about memories).

The writing and the translation (done, I believe, by Stephen Snyder) are beautifully done.  It doesn’t seem like anything special at first, and I don’t recall any passages that made me think: ‘I need to save this for my review!’.  But at the same time it kept me consistently engaged despite the slow pacing and plot.  It whisked me away and offered me an escape.  Albeit, to a rather depressing sort of place, but I often had a hard time putting it down and found myself eager to keep going.

The characters will also stick with me for quite awhile.  This is fairly impressive considering the amount of distance placed between them and the reader.  None of them have names.  One is Old Man.  The other is simply R.  Other characters are identified by their professions.  The hatmaker.  The neighbors.  Mother or Father.

The main character is a novelist, and we are given glimpses of her WIP through out.  To be honest, I didn’t feel these parts added much to the overall novel.  The story itself largely mirrors what our protagonist is going through and didn’t reveal much else about the story.

I also will say I wasn’t a fan of the ending.  I can’t really expand on this without spoilers so I’ll avoid discussing it too much, but as I approached the end I remember thinking there weren’t enough pages to wrap up the story and while there is definite closure it was a disappointing sort of closure without much explanation.

The entire novel is ambiguous which is why I think I’m taking less issue with it than the last few ambiguously ended books I’ve read.  Everything is sort of surreal and dreamlike and the reader is just expected to take it at face value.  *shrugs*

For the most part I really enjoyed this and will likely check out other works by this author in the future.  I don’t think it will be a book for everyone and I don’t foresee myself recommending it often – but I think for some readers it could be an enjoyable literary diversion.

Thank you to the publisher for sending me an ARC for review.  The Memory Police can be found on GoodReads and Amazon.

Book Review: The Need by Helen Phillips

I didn’t mean to go on hiatus- but I actually haven’t done a whole lot of reading this week, and I sort of feel like a fraud.  I am bummed I missed this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, but I’m looking forward to checking out everyone else’s posts, and will probably do a similar post anyway.

Yesterday I received an ARC of The Need in the mail.  I read it all in two different sittings.  While I don’t know that it really had that ‘can’t put it down’ quality we all love, it was a really quick book with super short chapters that made it easy to keep reading.

The Need by Helen Phillips

Rating:  ★★★1/2

Blurb (from GoodReads): When Molly, home alone with her two young children, hears footsteps in the living room, she tries to convince herself it’s the sleep deprivation. She’s been hearing things these days. Startling at loud noises. Imagining the worst-case scenario. It’s what mothers do, she knows.

But then the footsteps come again, and she catches a glimpse of movement.

Suddenly Molly finds herself face-to-face with an intruder who knows far too much about her and her family. As she attempts to protect those she loves most, Molly must also acknowledge her own frailty. Molly slips down an existential rabbit hole where she must confront the dualities of motherhood: the ecstasy and the dread; the languor and the ferocity; the banality and the transcendence as the book hurtles toward a mind-bending conclusion.

I was intrigued by the genre here, and before reading I couldn’t decide if it would be more horror, more science fiction or thriller.  It’s not quite science-fiction, more speculative, and more thriller than horror.  It reminds me a lot of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter.

Genre aside- the core of this book is about motherhood, and Phillips nails that part.  In some ways, while reading this, I was relieved to know I wasn’t alone and I wasn’t crazy.  My daughter is six, so a lot of the things Molly is going through I don’t have to cope with as often, but everything she endures is hauntingly, eerily familiar.  I felt like I could have written this book.  Kids will make you crazy, but your love for them will always trump all.

This book starts much stronger than it finishes.  I think, unfortunately the reveal for The Need comes far too early, and the end of the book stretches on a little too long.  I would have liked if there had been more suspense/mystery built into the plot, or if the MC had spent more time investigating what was going on instead of simply accepting what was happening to her.

Phillips does an excellent job of bringing the characters to life on the page.  Especially the kids who come out with some off the wall, nonsensical stuff (like ‘Can I lick your eye?’) that only four year olds can invent.  My one complaint with Molly would be that I really wasn’t sure the decisions she made felt reasonable or logical.  People all react differently to different things, of course, but there were some decisions she made that were mildly rage-inducing and made me want to shout at the page.  It was disappointing considering Phillips gets literally everything else right.

I did enjoy the writing.  The Need is definitely more literary than commercial, and while I wouldn’t describe it as lyrical, Phillips does some things with repetition and structure that feel hard hitting, if that makes any sense.

The ending is ambiguous.  Normally this is something I avoid, I don’t like ambiguous endings ever, but for some reason it works here.  I’m attributing it to the fast build-up of suspense and the slow unraveling of everything else, as well as the allegorical nature of the book.  It’s an ambiguous ending that I somehow understood perfectly, because the allegory makes a lot of sense to me.  

All in all- not a bad little book.  If you’re interested in this because Molly is a paleobotanist I’d skip it, that’s a very small part of the book.  Otherwise it’s a super quick read (258 pages) with fast, punchy chapters, that would make for a great lazy day beach read.

The Need releases in the US on July 9, 2019 from Simon & Schuster.  Thank you to the publisher for providing me with an ARC for review.  It can be found on GoodReads or pre-ordered on Amazon.

UPDATED:  **SPOILERS AHEAD**

This is my most viewed review on my blog, and I think readers are looking for a clarification to the ending.  So here’s my interpretation:

The book is a metaphor for motherhood.  How being a mother can almost split you into two people.  You love your kids.  You’d do anything for them, to help them, give them every opportunity.  Your kids are your life.

And then there are days when you really just think: “What the hell was I thinking becoming a mother?  I could be backpacking in Europe right now!  Drinking margaritas in Mexico!  Getting a full eight hours of sleep… EVERY NIGHT.  Doing pretty much anything aside from constantly cleaning the house, picking up toys, making food and snacks, cleaning up vomit, potty training….”

I am a mother, and I know, those first few years are hard.  So hard, they make you feel like you are losing your mind.  I don’t feel like I will ever get a full eight hours of sleep ever again.

So I took the ending to be the reconciling of those two Mollys, into one Molly.  (The Molly we start with does on occasion say she considered stepping back and letting the other Molly take over, that she was a better mother, etc.)  The time warp closed, the two Mollys became one, she accepted her motherhood-dom… I don’t know.  It doesn’t work if you are looking for a literal answer.

I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer for you.  I am one of the biggest haters of ambiguous endings, and this one is far from satisfactory (like many of you, I think I’d have preferred something less ambiguous).  But for some reason in this single instance, the metaphorical ending worked for me (and it’s probably because, let’s face it, no literal ending could have buttoned up this book nicely).

 

Book Review: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The Mere Wife Maria Dahvana Headley

Rating:  ★★★★1/2

“The world isn’t large enough for heroes and monsters at once. There’s too much danger of confusion between the two categories.”

I finished this book a week ago, and I have been delaying writing the review, because honestly, there’s no way I can do it justice.  The Mere Wife is a contemporary retelling of Beowulf.  Not only does it move at an exciting pace, while also containing lots of twists and turns, it’s largely allegorical, and gives the reader a lot to think about in just three hundred short pages.

I’m going to start by saying, generally, contemporary settings and times are not my thing.  I read for escapism.  I prefer fantastical places, settings, events, characters, etc.  I picked it up mostly because people who have far better bookish taste than me were interested in a buddy read, but also because I think there’s something incredibly vicious about modern day suburban life: competing with the Joneses, whose grass is greener, that sort of thing.

It was even better than I had hoped.  The dedication reads: “For anonymous and all the stories she told.”  I knew right from the beginning I was in for a treat, something sharp and cutting and unapologetic.  Moving onto the prologue, Headley opens with:

“Say it.  The beginning and the end at once.  I’m face down in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead.”

This is one of the best prologues I have ever read.  This book starts with a bang, hooks its claws in you and refuses to let go until the end.

One of our MCs, Willa Herot, is savage in such a way that I couldn’t wait to see what she would do next.  Her character and her thoughts are incredibly loathsome, and yet, she’s also really sympathetic.  Her life has never been her own.  She’s expected, as the wife of a doctor, to be pretty and perfect, meet all the standards everyone has set for her, and hold up her husband all the while.  Not to complain at his shortcomings, only work on improving her own.

“You don’t really own anything. Nothing is yours forever, not your body, not your youth, not even your mind.”

Dana Mills is our second MC.  She’s a veteran, and she suffers from PTSD.  She’s Gren’s mother, and all she wants is to see her son grow up safe.  Dana acts as a catch all stand in for most of the oppressed peoples of the world.  She’s incredibly sympathetic, and arguably the hero of our story.  Her chapters are heartbreaking, and filled with bone chilling statements, and observations of the world we live in.

“The world has teeth and claws, and my baby thinks he can walk in it.  Hotel balconies and back rooms, speeches given in public, children marching, fists up, nothing to shield their hearts from bullets.  They shoot, walk away, let him bleed…My son becomes a place where the sidewalk is stained.”

Headley takes these two women, who couldn’t be more different, and somehow manages to give them common ground.  She does the same with Dylan and Grendel.  The lines between everything, hero and monster, haves and have nots, become blurred.

My favorite chapters are the Greek Chorus chapters.  Sometimes they are told from the POV of the mothers of Herot Hall, sometimes hounds, sometimes ghosts.  They are written in first person plural and invoke a sense of war, marching forward, collectively, against any threat.  Every single chorus chapter absolutely blew me away.

“Do you think sixty-five-year-old women don’t go to war? We are always at war. Our husbands spent their lives in comfortable chairs. Have we ever sat in comfortable chairs? No. Yoga balls, haunches tensed.”

It was an empowering read for women, no matter your background, and I loved every glorious moment.  But Headley manages to comment on many issues.  Race and racism.  Oppression.  Politics.  War.  Hero worship.  Feminism.  The 1%.  It’s a book that has something for everyone, carefully dissecting and picking apart everyday modern life.

“The famous ones kept going, video, photo, headlines, and here they still are, running countries, pressing buttons, standing in offices, insisting all the money in the world belongs to them, pushing secrets through votes, starving the bottom so the top can feast.”

My only real complaint about the book, was the ending.  A lot of things weren’t quite clear to me about the end.  It felt very rushed.  I had a lot of questions.  In a book that’s only 300 pages long, I felt like there was plenty of time to dig a little deeper into the details.  It’s also the end chapters that deviate the most from the Beowulf storyline itself, where everything prior to that had been pretty much on point.  The ending is the only reason it wasn’t quite a five star read for me.

I highly recommend this both as a thought provoking, literary read, and for readers who just want to be entertained.

I do have content warnings- but I hate to leave plot spoilers in my reviews- so if you need them, please comment below so I can let you know.