The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

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The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: A beautiful little book, delicately written with grace and humour.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099521341

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I never really got on with maths at school. Or sport. So a book that seems to deal with both baseball and mathematics ought to fly to the bottom of my 'to read' pile. However, this slim little Japanese novel slipped into my hands and into my heart as soon as I saw it. The premise is very simple - a young housekeeper is assigned to a job working for an elderly, brain-damaged professor of mathematics. He has only eighty minutes of short-term memory, so he doesn't remember her from one day to the next, but his memory pre-1975 remains intact and somehow he continues to function, living through his obsession with numbers. Each morning he greets her at the door asking for her birth date and her telephone number. He finds puzzles and equations in everything, including shoe sizes and baseball, and the housekeeper becomes fascinated as she and her son also begin to see the beauty and the poetry in numbers.

Nothing very much happens in this story. The housekeeper settles into the professor's life, finding ways to cope with his memory problems. The professor already has his own coping mechanisms - he has paper notes clipped all over his suit with scribbled reminders on them, the most important one being 'My memory lasts only eighty minutes' - so he slowly begins to add paper notes to his suit to help him 'remember' her, and her son whom he nicknames Root because his head is flat like the symbol for square root. They find ways to reach out to each other through numbers, puzzles and riddles, and Root and the Professor discover a shared love of the same baseball team, although the Professor remembers them as they were in 1975, the time of his accident, and so Root does his best to shield the Professor from daily upsets upon realising that everything has changed since then. There are small moments of drama between the three of them, but they are all fairly domestic.

I suspect some people might find this sort of story frustrating, with the seeming lack of action and excitement. I thought it was just lovely. I became very attached to the Professor through the book, and embroiled in the lives of these three characters. I think that had he been my maths teacher then maybe I would have fallen in love with numbers myself. He makes them sound interesting, poetic, almost giving them characteristics, and he easily shows the amazing patterns and puzzles that exist. I had never before thought about how zero came into being, known about perfect numbers, or seen the appeal in solving equations, yet as you read along as the housekeeper works to try to solve some of the puzzles you almost feel the same sense of achievement as she does.

There is nothing especially 'Japanese' about the novel, although it still seemed to me to have a flavour of the Japanese way of life, of a culture of respect and politeness. It has a light, delicate style that's very easy to read, and I flew through it in no time. I felt a strange mix of joy and sadness at the end, and surprise that such a little book could be so affecting. It's really well translated, nothing jars or feels wrong in the text. I have already forced it into my husband's 'to read' pile and will be evangelising tirelessly for others to read it. If you're looking for something short, but still intelligent and beautiful, or just a really enjoyable, well-written book then this is definitely one to try.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: If you're looking for something else Japanese then you might want to try this manga story or for something similar in style try The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. If you are interested in number then we can recommend Professor Stewart's Hoard of Mathematical Treasures by Ian Stewart. You might like to try Villain by Shuichi Yoshida, although we found the style a little hard to come to terms with but we're glad we persevered.

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Buy The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa at


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