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‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa

Characterised as a science-fiction novel reminiscent of Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty Four, but with a dreamlike Kafka-esque quality of the fantastic, Yoko Ogawa’s newest English-translated novel, The Memory Police, embodies the sheer horror of loss and the inevitability of preventing it. The novel was originally published in Japan in 1994 and has been beautifully translated into English by Stephen Snyder. 38058832._SY475_

The novel is set in a fictional and unnamed island (one can’t help but presume it uncannily brings Japan itself to mind), where different things such as hats, ribbons, birds, fruit and later on even certain body parts start disappearing from people’s memories. Having no recollection of those things whatsoever, the people are then required to destroy all remnants of the thing that has disappeared from their memories, something that the Memory Police of title is there to supervise.

However, some people are unable to forget and they try to preserve not only their memories of what has disappeared for everyone else, but also some mementos of the things themselves. The Memory Police, as a ruthless invigilator, stricly punishes whoever does not destroy every trace of the things that have disappeared, and they often take the people that cannot forget away, never to be seen again.

Our protagonist is a young writer whose parents have both passed away and she is left with an old family friend and her typing teacher, with whom she also maintains an intimate relationship. When her teacher is forced to go into hiding lest he be taken by the Memory Police, our protaginst does everything she can to protect him and keep him as close to her as possible. How can a person stay the same, though, when their memories and experiences associated with certain things are in danger of fading away from one day to another?

“People… seem capable of forgetting almost anything.”

-The Memory Police, location 96

As usual, Ogawa’s prose is stark and clear and creates an eerie atmosphere befitting of her novel’s theme. Although there is a very vivid plot throughout the novel, it does feel at times like the story does not move forward at all, but it instead focuses on the feelings and musings of the characters. The totalitarian-like regime that is described is terrifying, presenting a society on the verge of collapse and almost famished. Although the disappearances are never really explained, leaving this fantastic element aloft, they do seem to rather represent a disappearance of culture, of the self, of one’s identity.

Ogawa’s apocalyptic magical realism is exactly my cup of tea, and so I devoured this book is just a few days. I loved the tranquil and stark writing style, I loved the world and character building, (I disaggreed with some relationships between characters, but that’s a personal issue) but at some points, the story felt a little lacking. Like it had become absorbed in its own created universe a little too much, or like it was itself a fragment of a memory unable to be forgotten.

The taste the ending leaves is bittersweet, just like the theme it explores. Memories are fickle yet precious, they are proof that some things and experiences have truly existed, they are what makes us, us. Without our memories, can we still remain the same people, or are we bound to disappear and dissolve into nothingness like our very own memories?

The Memory Police is a wonderful and terrifying book that certainly provides its readers with plenty of food for thought. I wholeheartedly recommend it to lovers of the fantastic and literary fiction alike, as I’m sure both groups will find something to relish in between its pages.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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‘Dew on the Grass’ by Eiluned Lewis ****

Eiluned Lewis is one of those wonderful female authors who wrote from the heart about places she knew and loved, and who appears – like so many authors of her generation – to have been unjustly forgotten.  First published in 1934, Dew on the Grass tells the autobiographical story of a young girl and her siblings growing up in the Montgomeryshire countryside in Wales.  Among Lewis’ concerns here are ‘gender domesticity, Welsh culture and the rural environment.’9781870206808

The novel has been reprinted in recent years by Honno, a focused press which focuses on translating works by Welsh women into English, and in bringing neglected novels back for new generations to read.  The insightful introduction which accompanies the novel has been written by Katie Gramich, a Professor at Cardiff University.  She writes at the outset of the reception of Dew on the Grass, which was ‘phenomenally successful’ upon its publication, ‘attracting positive reviews from literary critics, going rapidly through a number of editions, being translated into several languages, and winning the Gold Medal of the Book Guild for the best novel of the year.’  Gramich then goes on to speak of Lewis’ own life.  I knew next to nothing about the author when I began to read, but feel rather familiar with her after learning about her early life, and the things which inspired her to begin a writing career.

Lewis’ focus within Dew on the Grass certainly lies with her child characters.  Gramich writes that ‘both mother and father are very much background figures in Lewis’s fictional world, where the norm, the central consciousness is that of the child.’  She goes on to compare Lewis to Dylan Thomas in their use of the child’s viewpoint, ‘though her work in this mode predates his by several years…  Like Thomas’s, Lewis’s child-world is not pure idyll but a place of imagination and delight hedged around with menace, punishment and disappointment.’  Gramich also gives a comparison between Lewis and Katherine Mansfield, one of my all-time favourite authors, which piqued my interest in the novel still further.

Rather than exploring the working class in her novel, as a lot of her contemporaries tended to do, Lewis looks at an upper middle-class family named the Gwyns, who are Anglo-Welsh landed gentry.  Nine-year-old Lucy, ‘dreamy, accident-prone and acutely alive to the world around her’ is the second eldest daughter.  She is a thoughtful child, and continually muses about the world around her.

Lewis’ prose is described as ‘sensuous, evocative and nostalgic’, and it often manages to be all of these things at once.  Of the house in which Lucy and her family live, for instance, she writes: ‘Succeeding generations of farmers and small gentry had added to the house, here a storey and there a room, heedless of symmetry or foundations, so that on starry nights, when the wind rushed… walls rocked, joists groaned and cracks widened ominously in the plaster.’  Dew on the Grass is filled with charming and touching details: ‘The names of their [the Gwyns’] four children, who grew up at Pengarth, were recorded by a pencilled legend on the stable door of stout oak.  It ran “Delia, Lucy, Maurice (in boots), Miriam (barefoot)” – being a memorial of the height of the young Gwyns at the time of this story.’

Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’  The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

The structure of Dew on the Grass fits the plot wonderfully.  It is made up of a lot of short story-length vignettes, and is overall a rather a quiet, but highly engaging, book.  Dew on the Grass is a celebration of Welsh life, and of childhood; it is clear that Lewis’ homeland was much cherished by her.  Filled with an innocent and nostalgic charm, the novel is quite quaint in some ways, but thought-provoking in others.  This forgotten novel certainly presents a bygone way of life, filled with beauty and sheer delight.

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Furrowed Middlebrow

I’m sure that a lot of you are already familiar with Furrowed Middlebrow‘s fantastic and comprehensive ‘British Women Writers of Fiction, 1910-1960’ list (here).  If not, US blogger Scott has compiled an enormous list of just what it says above; British women writers, both popular and forgotten.  He has recently teamed up with Dean Street Press to bring some of the more neglected female authors back into the public eye, making their work more easily accessible to the modern reader.

With this in mind, I have perused the list and picked out ten novels which I very much like the look of, and will try my best to find in the weeks to come.  I would love nothing more than to work my way through Scott’s entire list, but this seems a little unrealistic, particularly with a thesis to write, and after yesterday’s announcement that I’m not doing that well with 2017’s reading challenges!

I have chosen books which I have never heard discussed for this list, and whilst all of the Dean Street Press publications (yes, all of them) appeal to me, I have deliberately not included any of them.  (That said, please go and read Ursula Orange and Frances Faviell immediately.  They are fantastic.)  For many of my choices, I have been unable to find a blurb, but have used the information which Scott has very helpfully written alongside his entries.

1. Perronelle by Valentina Hawtrey
This 1904 novel is set within fifteenth-century Paris, and is by an author who received most success with a translation of a book on Mary Magdalene.  You can read a 1904 review of the novel on the New York Times‘ site (here).

2. Island Farm by Hilda Brearley 51rd5fktvjl-_sx333_bo1204203200_
This children’s book was published in 1940, and was the first of the author’s three novels.  I cannot find much information about it aside from the following, but it sounds quirky and Enid Blyton-esque; what’s not to like?:  ‘3 children are the family of 2 unconventional archaeologists, and are sent to stay at an east-coast farmhouse.’

3. The Chinese Goose by Jean Edminson (aka Helen Robertson)
This 1960 novel sounds wonderfully strange; it is a mystery novel which revolves around a woman killed by swans.  I’ve never read anything quite like it, but am suitably intrigued!

4. Alice by Elizabeth Eliot
Alice was published in 1950, and compared to Nancy Mitford.  Scott deems it ‘clever’ and ‘darkly humorous’.  Kirkus Review writes the following: ‘A first novel which has considerable charm, an insouciant brightness, and a definite knowledge of the rather worldly world from which it derives- the indolent, elegant upper classes in England between the wars. As told by Margaret, her oldest friend, this follows the story of Alice from the time when they attend a rather impossible finishing school. Everything Alice does goes badly; she seems attuned to failure in her search for emotional security, the only thing she wants. The first boy she loves is appropriated by her older sister; she marries Cassius Skeffington, a self-absorbed, self-indulgent exquisite; she has an affair with a bluff but bad-tempered older man; and as finally she makes a success in the theatre, she obliterates reality when she loses her memory, her identity… The early scenes here, of both these jeunes filles en fleur and their devastating deflation of their elders and betters are highly entertaining; and if the wit here is more disarming and not quite as deadly as Nancy Mitford’s- who deals with much this same type of milieu- there should be a parallel public.’

vaughan-thinkofnoughttitlepage5. A Thing of Nought by Hilda Vaughan
This 1934 novel is Vaughan’s most famous, and is set in her native Wales.  It tells a couple who fall in love, but have to be separated when Penry Price, the youngest of five sons of a farming family, has to go to Australia in order to make enough money to marry his sweetheart.  Scott’s beguiling review of A Thing of Nought can be found here.

6. The Two Windows by Mary Cleland
I can find hardly any information about this 1922 novel, but Scott has found a charming quote from the Queenslander, which deems it ‘something fragrant, delicate, and altogether charming’.

7. The House by the Sea by Jon Godden
Jon Godden, real name Winsome Ruth Key Godden, was the older sister of the far more famous Rumer.  She wrote twelve novels of her own, and the siblings also co-authored several tomes.  This particular novel is about a woman named Edwina, who is able to embark on her own, free life after being left some money.  The lovely Jane at Beyond Eden Rock wrote an utterly splendid review of The House by the Sea, which can be found here.

8. Before the Wind by Janet Laing

Before the Wind is a 1918 novel, an ‘energetic comedy’, which focuses upon a young woman who serves as a companion to ‘two eccentric women in wartime Scotland’.  It sounds as though it includes everything I look for in a novel, and I shall be very pleased indeed when I can find my own copy!

9. Sallypark by Margaret Hassett 35490183
This entertaining story by the author of ‘Educating Elizabeth’ etc., tells of the experience of Mrs. Warmbath, a widow, when visiting her cousins the Hartes in Cork.  The atmosphere at Sallypark is extremely well done. The father is a local doctor, who keeps his three daughters in subjection and refuses to let any of them marry; the daughters, while paying respect to their father, carry on their love affairs behind his back; Mrs. Warmbath, against her will, gets involved in these affairs, and manages the father so successfully that the family become suspicious of her motive.  However all ends well in this highly amusing tale.

10. The Tinsel November by Julia Rhys
This 1962 children’s book is wonderfully described as as: “A fantasy tale of a gloomy All Hallow’s Eve, an old English house, some mysterious antique marionettes and a magical time of dark November days which will usher in the candle-glow of Christmas.”  It sounds utterly splendid, and I’m hoping that copies won’t be too difficult to find by the time the year is out!

 

Have you read any of these books?  Are you, too, wishing that you could work through the entirety of the Furrowed Middlebrow list, or are you actually in the process of doing so?  If so, which has been your favourite discovery to date?

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April: Neglected Women Writers’ Month

I wanted to come up with a new showcase for the blog; something which I could focus upon, which was coherent, informative, and useful, but which didn’t take up chunks of the valuable time which I have in order to write essays, attend lectures, and the like.  I have come up with the idea of showcasing many women writers, all of whom I feel are neglected to some degree.  Some of them you will have heard of, particularly if you peruse the Virago and Persephone lists, but some are new even to me.

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‘L’oiseau Volage’ by George Barbier (1914)

April, therefore, is going to be Neglected Women Writers’ Month here at The Literary Sisters.  I will be profiling a different author each day, and including her bibliography, quotes from her work, and any other snippets of interest which I can find.  I am aiming to read books by each of the authors and blog about them in future, but I sadly haven’t had chance to read works by all of the showcased women thus far.  The project has been largely inspired by Nicola Beaumont’s A Very Great Profession: The Women’s Novel 1914-39, which I would highly recommend.

I hope you are as excited as I am for this project!