The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa

As interesting as all this was, it could never match the experience of simply spending time with the professor. I remember when he taught us about the spell cast by placing numbers under this square root sign. 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.

I sunk right into this, like a comfortable old chair from the first page. At once happy and relieved to be free of the gut wrenching plot turns in Westeros for a time, but I was carried along by the simple and elegant prose.

After the year of his accident the entire life of the professor only lasts eighty minutes. As he spends his days solving problems in Mathematics journals his sheer enthusiasm and passion for numbers touches and inspires a mild, patient house keeper and her young son, who he christens Root for the shape of his head, and they form a close and loving bond, despite him forgetting them in under two hours.
To aid him the professor attaches notes to his clothes, all attached with clips, a life in post-it’s, and it’s one of these that reminds him of the house keeper every morning and her son. As she learns how to fit into his short term memory and bridge the gaps when he forgets them, the housekeeper falls under the spell of numbers, engaged by the Professors infections enthusiasm. It is Root that adapts more easily, perhaps due to the simplicity that children see in everything, the absence of over thinking that becomes habit as you get older. The Professor also has an intense drive to look after and protect children, which Root responds to. They slowly try to interact more in his life, with the trip to the baseball game an enjoyable read, as they find ways to hide from him the fact that his favourite player had retired. Other attempts, such as a trip to the dentist are less successful, but the housekeeper, after being let go and re-hired, is at all times gentle and considerate. She uncovers small snippets of his life which hint at an interesting back story, but they are never followed up on, and it keeps the story uncluttered, a heartfelt recollection from the housekeeper of someone close to her heart.

Most, if not all of the Maths in the book flew straight over my head, and in all honesty I was not caught up in the Professors enthusiasm as the Housekeeper was. Ogawa didn’t really delve too deeply into the impact of memory, or perhaps I missed them like the maths, but then there is no reason why there should be, this is a gentle story, recollected beautifully by the housekeeper, and I read it in a day, although I did not want to reach the end the closer I got.

“Good!” he almost shouted, shaking the leather strap of his watch. I didn’t know what to say. “It’s important to use your intuition. You swoop down on the numbers, like a kingfisher catching the glint of sunlight on the fish’s fin.” He pulled up a chair, as if wanting to be closer to the numbers. The musty paper smell from the study clung to the professor.


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