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The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (trans. Stephen Snyder)

When I spotted this book, with its quote from my literary hero Paul Auster on the cover, I was hooked. Having read it, I’m delighted I chanced upon it,  for I loved this gentle tale of the Professor, his Housekeeper and her son.

A young housekeeper is sent to work for an old mathematics professor. She’ll be ninth to have this job as he can be difficult – the Professor’s brain was injured in an accident and now he has only eighty minutes of short-term memory. The Professor asks her questions – what is her shoe size? her telephone number? This happens each morning when they meet as if for the first time for him. The Professor clips notes onto his suit to help him with vital information…

At the end of my first day, I noticed a new note on the cuff of his jacket. “The new housekeeper,” it said. The words were written in tiny, delicate characters, and above them was a sketch of a woman’s face. It looked like the workof a small child – short hair, round cheeks, and a mole next to the mouth – but I knew instantly that it was a portrait of me. I imagined the Professor hurrying to draw this likeness before the memory had vanished. The note was proof of something, that he had interrupted his thinking for my sake.

The Housekeeper and the Professor strike up a sort of friendship. Although she has to reintroduce herself every day, they settle into a routine. When he’s not working on maths problems, he tells her about the beauty of prime numbers, won’t eat his carrots, and is every inch an absent-minded Professor. When she tells him about her son, he insists that he comes to the house after school rather than be at home on his own until she finishes work. The Professor calls him ‘Root’ because his flat head reminds him of the flat top of a square root sign (√). They have a shared love of baseball; unfortunately the Professor’s memories end in 1985 and his favourite player is no long gone from the game, but they devise ways of getting round this. The Professor also helps Root with his maths homework, setting extra problems that get them both (and me), thinking.  They make a lovely threesome, the Professor is good and patient with children and Root makes him happy. The Housekeeper begins to see herself as a friend rather than employee, and arranges an outing to a baseball game …

Please don’t let the maths in this book put you off.  It’s mostly a discussion of primes – those magical numbers that can only be divided by themselves and one.  Numbers are the Professor’s comfort zone; he’s an excellent teacher and the discussion is easy to follow – indeed I learned quite a lot and found it fascinating.   The language of baseball is less my cup of tea normally, but I couldn’t help but get caught up in their enthusiasm.

I loved this book, it was gentle, beguiling and quirky, yet utterly serene in that Japanese sort of way.  (10/10) I bought this book.

See also Dovegreyreader for another view.

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