By Gurnish Kaur Birdi and Sandhya Christine Theodore
Not to be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column covers a review of Bestiary by K-Ming Chang and The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa.
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang
This novel is an anecdotal treatise on various beasts, real and mythical. These animals are interlaced with three generations of a family, as an unnamed Grandmother, Mother and Daughter narrate a story that drifts between realism and fantasy.
Bestiary begins with Mother talking about her family’s move from Taiwan to Arkansas, and the struggle of losing all their wealth because her father forgot where he buried their gold. What follows is a non-linear narrative that, when pieced together, becomes a lurid history of a fantastical family. The majority of the story is told by Daughter, who wakes up with a tiger’s tail after hearing about Hu Gu Po, a tiger spirit in a woman’s body. Meanwhile, she also falls for a girl with her own strange history. As Daughter and her lover translate letters from Grandmother spit out by mouths in the backyard, Daughter begins to understand the legacy left behind by the women in her family.
There is no sentimentality in this book. It is difficult and unforgiving. The language is often stomach-churning and descriptions of violence are brutally honest. The relationships are never perfect, from the complicated dynamics of parents and children to brothers and sisters and lovers and spouses. Despite Bestiary featuring an aunt who turns everything she touches red, a daughter conceived with a river and a giant crab becoming a child when eaten, there remains an undercurrent of harsh reality. The story emphasises the difficulty of motherhood and daughterhood, as it explores the traumas, strengths and violence inherited and passed down.
K-Ming Chang's debut novel reflects her poetic prowess with its lyricism. She has skilfully used both language and storytelling to transport the reader deep into a world where legends and reality coexist and interact. Both her raw descriptions and seemingly simple reflections craft a dynamic and nuanced story. Bestiary is a great book for lovers of poetry and anyone looking for an engaging plot and reflections on history, family and love.
The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa
First published in 1994 in its original Japanese, The Memory Police encapsulates the uncertain feelings of loss and control, and our relationships with memories. Yōko Ogawa’s Japanese dystopian story is centred around an island controlled by the Memory Police, the inhabitants of which are all ordinary until things start to disappear. Their memories – of birds, hats, flowers and other objects – begin to fade quickly, and soon after the people continue their lives without them.
Ogawa’s characters are nameless. As readers, we follow the journey of a protagonist whose routine we learn and feelings we understand, but whose name we never know. The same goes for her companion, known as the ‘old man’. It only occurred to me after finishing The Memory Police that perhaps they made names disappear, too.
While the island is full of people whose memories disappear, there are many who do not forget. As nice as it may sound to remember things no one else does, these are the people who are targeted, abducted and killed by the Memory Police. Our protagonist soon realises that someone really close to her cannot forget memories, just like her mother. She has lost many people in her life and in fear of losing anyone else, she hides him from the Memory Police.
This novel is an eye-opening dystopia that keeps you on the edge of your seat, as our protagonist hides the Police’s target and faces obstacles to keep him safe. And one day, she battles the loss of something that ends her career and her passion, but her friend encourages her to remember and preserve the memory of the disappearances, just like her mother did.
Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, Ogawa’s The Memory Police is a beautifully written, haunting dystopia, perfect for anyone who enjoys themes similar to George Orwell’s 1984. Celebrating translated literature should be important to anyone who appreciates the art of words, as opening this door will expose you to abstract ways of writing and idea building. This is the first translated piece of literature I have read, and I am excited to read more.
The Memory Police will definitely leave you wondering. My thoughts while reading this novel were: What if books started disappearing from our world? How would we educate? How would we empower? How would we escape reality?