Recent Reads – The Memory Police; Square Haunting; Excellent Women

One of the perverse by-products of the current lockdown is the fact that I have more time to read and write at the moment, even if my ability to concentrate isn’t the best. So, in the spirit of trying to keep a record of my reading, here are a few brief thoughts on some of the books that have captured my imagination over the past few weeks.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994), tr. By Stephen Snyder (2019)

A haunting, beautifully-written novel about memory, loss and the holes left in our hearts when memories disappear.

The novel is set on an unnamed island where specific objects have been vanishing from day-to-day life for several years. Birds, perfume, bells, stamps – these are some of the things that have been ‘disappeared’, no longer in existence either as physical objects or as memories in the minds of the islanders.

The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance. […] I got up, put on a sweater, and went out into the garden. The neighbours were all outside, too, peering around anxiously. The dog in the next yard was growling softly.

Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump, with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast. I had just begun to wonder whether it was one of the creatures I had seen with my father when I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” – everything. (p. 10)

The disappearances are enforced by the Memory Police, an authoritarian group who go around looking for any remaining traces of ‘disappeared’ items. Moreover, the Police also play a role in tracking down any islanders who can recall erased items, rounding them up for further investigation.

The novel’s narrator is a writer; and her editor, R, is one of the few individuals with the ability to remember some of these things – namely, the existence of emeralds, perfume and other forgotten items. As the narrative unfolds, we follow the narrator’s attempts to conceal her editor from the authorities while simultaneously trying to work on her novel – the premise of which has a certain resonance with the broader story. 

Ogawa’s thoughtful, meditative novel has been widely reviewed elsewhere, so rather than wittering on about it here, I shall direct you to various other posts – particularly those by Claire, Eric and Grant – which cover it in more detail. When I think about this book, what strikes me most is how poignant it feels right now, at a time when so many of the things we have taken for granted for years are no longer accessible to us – at least for the foreseeable future. It’s a very thought-provoking read, particularly given the current global crisis – definitely recommended reading.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade (2020)

I’ll keep this one brief, not because of any concerns about the book – it’s actually incredibly good! – but for other, purely personal reasons. In short, I’ve always found it harder to write about non-fiction than fiction, especially when a book is as meticulously researched as this.

Square Haunting is a fascinating collection of mini-biographies, focusing on five female inhabitants of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, primarily covering the interwar years. The women in question are:

  • Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) – modernist poet, in residence 1916-18;
  • Dorothy L. Sayers – writer of detective fiction, in residence 1920-21;
  • Jane Ellen Harrison – classicist and translator, in residence 1926-28;
  • Eileen Power – historian, broadcaster and pacifist, in residence 1922–40;
  • Virginia Woolf – writer and publisher, in residence 1939-40.

What I really like about this book is the way the author uses Mecklenburgh Square as a prism through which to view the lives of these pioneering women, painting a rich tapestry of life within London’s cultural milieu from the end of WW1 to the beginning of WW2. In addition to presenting a snapshot of each woman’s life, Wade also enables us to glimpse other notable figures of the day – writers such as D.H Lawrence and Lytton Strachey, for example – on the edges of various social circles. There are some surprising connections between the lives of the various inhabitants of Mecklenburgh Square, relationships that make this location seem all the more intriguing.

In summary, Square Haunting is an erudite, evocative and beautifully constructed book. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in London’s social/cultural scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Excellent Women by Barba Pym (1952)

Finally, for this post at least, I’ve been revisiting Excellent Women, a novel I first wrote about back in 2016. The Backlisted Podcast team will be covering it in their next episode – due to land on Monday 13th April – hence the reason for my recent reread.

Once again, I’ll keep this brief – you can read my initial impressions of the book by clicking on the link above. What I will say is that it’s perfect lockdown reading. Reassuringly comforting and familiar, but with enough insight into the world of its protagonist to elevate it into the literary sphere.

In short, the novel is narrated by Mildred, a spinster in her early thirties, one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea when needed. The trouble is, Mildred ends up getting drawn into other people’s messy business, particularly as it is often assumed that she has no real life of her own.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (p. 1)

It’s a charming novel, one in which the most pressing concerns involve flower arranging and making plans for the forthcoming church bazaar. If only real life were as simple as this; we can but wish…Anyway, do tune into Backlisted once the podcast is up; it’s bound to be a good one.

The Memory Police is published by Harvill Secker; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy. Square Haunting is published by Faber & Faber, and Excellent Women by Virago Books; both personal copies.

40 thoughts on “Recent Reads – The Memory Police; Square Haunting; Excellent Women

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is fairly disquieting. I don’t think I’d realised beforehand quite how poignant it would feel to read in the current climate. That said, it’s a very good book, one that raises all sorts of questions about loss, the value of memories, and the extent to which the state should be allowed to ‘police’ individuals in society. I would definitely recommend it, maybe for later in the year!

      Reply
  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Thanks for the mention Jacqui, Memory Police is a very thought provoking read, though a dystopia, it made me think about how would we be if memory loss was normalised, rather than judged as it is in our society today. It’s an interesting subject to reflect on.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think that’s a really good point. It sort of turns that perception on its head, making those who can retain their memories seem outliers compared to the majority in society. I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but it’s an interesting angle. There’s also the selective nature of the ‘condition’ the fact that some memories disappear while others remain (albeit subject to their own erasure at some point in the future).

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Though I am working from home. I actually hand really been working so much that unlike most, I have had less time to read.

    The Memory Place sounds intriguing. I agree, such stories of loss are particularly relevant and affecting right now. I might give it a try.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d be interested to see what you think. I know you read books with dystopian or sci-fi elements every now and again, so you might find it interesting.

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    I have seen some excellent reviews of The Memory Police, I find myself quite interested in it.
    I also have a copy of Square Haunting, and I really want to read it, but I am currently struggling to hold hardback books, which is it is still sat unread. I would have been better to get the kindle version, but was tempted by the pretty book.
    Barbara Pym is always a fabulous re-read, Excellent Women is one of my favourites.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Square Haunting is indeed a beautifully produced book. I’m not a big fan of hardbacks either (for similar reasons to yours although I don’t have pain of RA to cope with – only Raynaud’s which does affect my hands, particularly in winter). Nevertheless, a damaged copy of this came into the shop, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I think you’ll really love it when you do get a chance to read it more comfortably. Kindling it would be a good idea for you, especially as it’s quite a chunky book. Not an easy one to hold for those of us who are digitally challenged, so to speak!

      PS The Pym was a joy – perfect for the current climate as I knew it would be :)

      Reply
  4. themonthlybooking

    I recently finished Square Haunting and thought it was brilliant – so many fascinating women, and I think the author did a great job of connecting their lives both to each other and to the modern world. The Memory Police has been high on my list for a while, and now I think I need to read Excellent Women as well! Thank you for the recommendation.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! The Pym is a joy, pure unalloyed pleasure from start to finish. I hope you get a chance to read it at some point.

      As for Square Haunting, I’m so glad you enjoyed it too. Yes, the connections between the different women really brought it to life as a whole piece. How fascinating it must have been to live in Mecklenburgh Square during that time. Reading it made me wonder about some of the other occupants of the Square and whether they were aware of the rarefied nature of the neighbourhood in those days.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Agreed about Square Haunting – such a marvellous book, and I loved the way she drew out the unexpected connections between the women. Definitely one of my books of the year. As for the Pym, I think this was the first of hers I read, and I did love it – as you say, if only life was so simple…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely fascinating. I was just saying to the previous commenter (themonthlybooking) how reading the Wade made me wonder about some of the other occupants of the Square at that time – whether they were aware of these rarefied individuals in their midst or blissfully ignorant of them, just getting on with their own business instead. :)

      Reply
  6. gertloveday

    Loved Excellent Women when I read it quite s few years ago now. Square Haunting sounds just my kind of thing, but I have had The Memory Police for some time and haven’t been able to get into it. I liked The Housekeeper and the Professor but Memory Police is strange, more detached. Nice cover though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Memory Police does feel somewhat detached; but then again, I wonder if that’s a characteristic of much of Ogawa’s fiction. I haven’t read The Housekeeper and the Professor, but from what I know of Ogawa’s short stories and novellas (the ‘Revenge’ collection and ‘The Diving Pool’), a sense of alienation or detachment is a running theme. Maybe now is not the best time to read TMP when the reality of our lives feels so unnerving and destabilised. Judging by some of the other comments I’ve seen (both on here and on Twitter), you’re not alone in finding it somewhat difficult to get into at the moment. :)

      Reply
  7. Maureen Murphy

    Hi Jacqui, I liked your observation about attention span. For some odd reason, after the first couple of weeks, I felt “overloaded” on Netflix and baking and had urge to start random projects to distract from things I could NOT control!!

    Just a shameless plug, but one of my career interests is U.S. Government Ethics (and ethics generally) and starting Sunday on Twitter at 18:00 GMT I am starting an “Ethics Salon” on twitter with an “interview” with Socrates. I have heard he is a bit of a grump, so we may spar a bit. :) TOPIC: “Can/Should Ethics be taught?” STOP ON BY TO @mamurphymaureen

    Hope this is not out-of-line…but I felt urge to share.

    Reply
  8. Maureen Murphy

    P.S. The sober-side of the “Government Ethics” stuff (which I hope will teach about ethics ina way that is fun) is that our Office of Government Ethics is in shambles with this President. The Director, Walt Shaub, resigned within months, citing to his inability to do anythings WITHIN the corrupt government of Trump. I am hoping to go back to government series, ideally at this office, to try to reconstruct what the Trumpists have destroyed.

    OK, I will get off my Virtual Hyde Park podium now. Stay safe and at peace!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No worries, Maureen. Thanks for the heads up on that. I kinda feel a bit Netflix-ed out too, particularly as the *good* stuff seems hard to find on there, buried as it is under great swathes of films and shows that hold little interest for me! I’ve sort of reverted to re-watching various films from my own DVD collection: In the Mood for Love, Rififi and Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy, which I’m hoping to watch over the Easter weekend.

      As for baking, I would love to be whipping up some banana bread a la Nigella et al, but the chances of getting any flour or eggs around here are close to zero!

      PS The Memory Police is excellent. Very strongly recommended if you like the sound of the premise.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there are sinister elements to it; but if anything I found it really poignant rather than frightening or menacing. It doesn’t read like a typical thriller or dystopian novel; it’s more meditative than that, I guess.

      Reply
  9. 1streading

    Thanks for the link to my Memory Police review – I agree with your thoughts, and the current crisis certainly makes it more unsettling. I like the sound of Square Haunting – I’ve always found Dorothy Sayers in particular fascinating as both a writer of detective fiction and a translator of Dante.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s interesting how strangely contemporary the Ogawa feels, even though it was written some 25 years ago. Square Haunting is great, packed full of insights into the lives of these women during their time in Bloomsbury. Oddly enough, I was completely ignorant about Sayers’ involvement in the Dante translations until I read the book. Also, her links to Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby — they were all at Somerville College together — came as a pleasant surprise!

      Reply
  10. Liz Dexter

    Hooray for Pym and I must get a copy of Square Haunting, as I keep seeing reviews of it. I don’t think I could manage The Memory Police in the current times! I’m working hard still on my not essential but busy job, and what with life admin taking longer than usual (must take a book for the Lidl queue next time), I seem to have LESS reading time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s strange how the lockdown is affecting us all in different ways, some of us leading very quiet existences while elsewhere others are working tirelessly to maintain essential services and save lives. Barbara Pym feels just right for the current time. There’s something soothing and comforting about the familiarity of her world, replete with its small pleasures and setbacks from one day to the next.

      Reply
  11. Emma

    I loved Excellent Women. Any idea of another book like this one because it is, as you said, a perfect read for these lockdown times.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would stick with Pym and read her first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle. It’s actually one of my favourite Pyms. Two sisters living together in a house – lots of fussing over cherishable young curate on the part of one sister while the other worships a longstanding love from afar. It’s an absolute joy.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Very welcome. I hope you get a chance to read it at some point. Her early novels are hilarious, almost as if she packed them full of her most amusing scenes.

          Reply
  12. Tredynas Days

    Excellent Women is a favourite of mine, too. Like others above, I’ve also read glowing reviews of the Squares book. I remember sitting years ago in a square in Bloomsbury and seeing a food outlet advertising Virginia Woolf burgers…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! The mind boggles. I think you’d like Square Haunting. It’s one of those books that’s probably best read over a reasonably lengthy period of time – good for dipping into in short bursts as opposed to being consumed in one or two extended sessions.

      Reply
  13. Scott W.

    I like these trio posts, and all three here seem enticing. Pym I’ve read, and loved, but not that particular work yet. Same for Ogawa. And I’m curious about the non-fiction work too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d love to hear what you think of the Ogawa. It’s strangely quiet and meditative given the somewhat dystopian nature of the premise – and all the better for it, I suspect.

      Reply
  14. buriedinprint

    Even though there are obvious benefits to reviewing just a single book in a single post (particularly for those who have read that book themselves), I find grouped reviews so interesting because they seem to reveal a broader sense of what you like to read. I guess some readers are pretty consistent in the kinds of books they gravitate towards, but for those of us who read across categories and are curious about a variety of topics and willing to read a variety of writing styles and structures, posts containing multiple books reveal a little more about “books we like” and I enjoy that. I’ve never read Ogawa but would like too (This one sounds a little like Jesse Ball’s book about assembling the truth when there are a lot of gaps in the story.) Fractured Square sounds divine. And I love Excellent Women of course. I’ve been toying with the idea of a Pym-Binge and I’m really looking forward to the enthusiasm which will ooze out of the Backlisted podcast this week. (Where are you living, that you cannot source flour and eggs? I hope you can cure your banana bread craving soon. Have you considered making your own flour and using a flax seed substitute for the eggs? :D)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a really good point about these grouped posts being a chance to see a broader cross-section of reading. I have been trying to mix things up a bit, especially during the lockdown. Some more contemporary fiction and the odd biography/memoir here and there alongside my tried and trusted favourites. Revisiting the Pym was a delight, and I think I appreciated some of the minor details a little more this time around. She’s very good on meals, the disappointment of a bland macaroni cheese and a blancmange or ‘shape’ of indeterminate colour. How sad is that?

      As for the banana bread, the crucial ingredients — particularly flour and eggs — are in very short supply here. I live in the Home Counties, about 20 miles outside of London, so I’m not sure what the situation is like elsewhere in the UK. Anyway, there’s definitely been a run on every type of flour around here. (It’s got to the point where I’m bitterly regretting throwing out an out-of-date packet of self-raising during a kitchen cupboard clearout before Christmas!)

      Reply
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