The Cleaners by Ken Liu


Goodreads: The Cleaners
Series: Faraway Collection (Amazon Original)
Age Category: Adult
Source: Free with Prime trial
Published: December 15, 2020

Official Summary

Touch the past or wash it away? Two sisters have a choice in this unforgettable short story of everyday magic and the power of memory by the Hugo and Nebula Award–winning author Ken Liu.

Gui is a professional cleaner at A Fresh Start, scrubbing away the unpleasant layers of memory that build up on the personal objects of his customers. Memory-blind himself, he can’t feel those wounds. Clara can, and she prefers them irretrievable. Until her sister, Beatrice, ultrasensitive to memory, raises one that could change Clara’s mind. For Gui, the past is gone. For Clara and Beatrice, deciding what to remember reaches to the heart of their shared history. 

Star Divider


This is a quick, mildly interesting story focused more on exploring a concept rather than plot or character development. It asks: What if memories left actual deposits on objects, and people could feel those memories when they touched the objects? What if some people felt them more clearly than others, and some people couldn’t feel them at all? Would you want bad memories washed away, or would you keep them as part of you?

To be honest, however, I didn’t find the concept all that intriguing. Would I want to sanitize my life so I didn’t encounter memories? No, not in general. Perhaps if something particularly bad happened to me, since apparently touching objects could bring that memory back more clearly and more painfully than it is in my own mind. But this just isn’t a question I’m going to sit around pondering for hours because I don’t think it’s ultimately that profound or complex, which means the story fell a bit flat for me. It was fine, but it’s not a story I’m going to really even remember I read three months from now.

I do think it’s worth mentioning I don’t think the story is YA. This collection got some attention when originally released in 2020 because it has the involvement of big-name authors, most of whom are known for writing YA, like Gayle Forman and Rainbow Rowell. The Cleaners, however, reads like adult speculative fiction to me, and of the three protagonists, not a single one is a teen, nor do they have teen-relevant problems. There’s no reason a teen reader wouldn’t enjoy it, but I think the Goodreads categorization of the story is misleading.

So, this was fine. I’ve read three out of five stories in this collection, and so far The Cleaners is my second favorite, but I haven’t found the stories particularly great overall. There was some consternation when the collection was released because they’re Amazon Originals, but I honestly don’t think readers who can’t access them are missing out on much, even with the big name writers.

3 Stars

5 thoughts on “The Cleaners by Ken Liu

  1. Michael J. Miller says:

    Memory is so fascinating to me. In so many ways its the foundation of who we are and the prime shaper of who we become. But this sounds like a very watered down version of ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’ When a story so complex and so provocative dealing with such a similar subject already exists, the authors have to know they’d invite comparison, right? So why offer a lackluster take on the idea? Maybe the film left a larger impression on me than others but thinking about this story as I read your piece, it just made me want to rewatch ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’


      • Michael J. Miller says:

        It was such a unique film! I saw it when I was in my early twenties and I don’t think I had quite enough life experience to really *get* it. I appreciated it. The idea of wanting to erase an ex from your mind – let alone realizing you really don’t want that as the process happened – certainly made me think and gave me a lot to talk about with friends. But I couldn’t really appreciate all it was saying. And yes! It does sound even more like this novel is just trying to retell that movie in a less exciting way. I’d recommend the movie – it takes less time to watch and seems far better done :D.


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