Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was a book club pick for February. Ogawa is an author whom I have only sampled through her interconnected short story collection, Revenge, which is vivid even two and a half years later. I plumped for The Housekeeper and the Professor as my book club choice because it sounded utterly charming, and looked like it would present a wonderful – and slightly unusual – slice of Japanese life. First published in Japan in 2003, and translated into English by Stephen Snyder, the novel both met and exceeded my expectations.
The Professor of the novel, a former maths teacher whose name we never learn, only has eighty minutes of short-term memory function, following a traumatic head injury seventeen years before the narrative begins. His memory effectively stops in 1975. Each morning, his housekeeper has to meet him anew: ‘… as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them. The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past’. It is she who narrates the story. The third character in the novel is the Housekeeper’s ten-year-old son. He is at first rather reluctant to spend so much time with the elderly Professor, but the two soon form an unshakeable bond.
The novel’s opening sentence really sets the tone for the whole: ‘We called him the Professor. And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign’. Ogawa’s writing is lovely, and she sets scenes simply yet beautifully: ‘It was a rainy evening in early April. My son’s schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug. The light in the Professor’s study was dim. Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain’.
Maths is the force which serves to really unite the trio; as the Housekeeper describes to us, ‘… I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do. Numbers were his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort’. There are many mathematical problems, diagrams, and equations which have been included, but they seem a natural addition to the whole.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is rather a peaceful novel about understanding, trust, and family; protection, selflessness, and kindness. Ogawa’s prose is unfailingly lovely, and the whole has been sensitively wrought. The Housekeeper and the Professor is an understanding and deep tome, which transports the reader entirely. All in all, it is a satisfying novel, which restores one’s faith in humankind, particularly within these turbulent times in which we live.