The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

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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.

A young housekeeper is sent by her agency to work for a man she calls the Professor. He’s already had nine previous housekeepers, the reasons for this seem to become clear at the housekeeper’s interview. Firstly, she is interviewed by the professor’s sister-in-law who sets out her requirements including one that states the housekeeper must never bother her – she lives in the main house, while her brother lives in a cottage at the bottom of the garden. Secondly, the Professor’s memory stopped working in 1975, when he hit his head in a car accident.

“In the simplest terms, it’s as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories. His memory lasts precisely eighty minutes – no more and no less.”

Every morning when the housekeeper arrives at the Professor’s door, he asks her ‘shoe size or telephone number, or perhaps my zip code’ and then discusses it in relation to factorials or prime numbers, number theory having been his area of expertise when he was an academic.

Ideas about numbers seem to come to him effortlessly while he has devised a somewhat scattered way of attempting to remember other things that are important to him:

But by far the most curious thing about the Professor’s appearance was the fact that his suit was covered with innumerable scraps of notepaper, each one attached to him by a tiny binder clip. Every conceivable surface – the collar, cuffs, pockets, hems, belt loops, and buttonholes – was covered with notes, and the binder clips gathered the fabric of his clothing in awkward bunches. The notes were simply scraps of torn paper, some yellowing or crumbling.

The job seems to go okay initially as long as the housekeeper doesn’t interrupt the Professor when he’s thinking; he spends most of his time working on mathematical puzzles and proofs in magazines which he asks her to post when he’s satisfied he’s completed them. As she spends more time with him, he begins to ask her to think about the numbers that surround her and she starts to become more interested in mathematics and number puzzles and theories. All is well until the Professor discovers the housekeeper has a ten-year-old son:

“And where is your son now?” he said.
“Well, let’s see. He’s home from school by now, but he’s probably given up on his homework and gone to the park to play baseball with his friends.”
“ ‘Well, let’s see’! How can you be so nonchalant? It’ll be dark soon!”
I was wrong, there would be no revelations about the number 10, it seemed. In this case, 10 was the age of a small boy, and nothing more.
“It’s all right,’ I said. “He does this every day.”
“Every day! You abandon your son every day so you can come here to make hamburgers?”

The outcome of the conversation is that the Professor insists the housekeeper’s son must come to his cottage every day after school, he adds a note to this effect to the one about the housekeeper pinned to his jacket. Once the son comes to the cottage, the Professor realises that it would be ludicrous for the housekeeper to feed him and then go home and cook for herself and the son he’s nicknamed Root. This leads to them eating as a makeshift family unit and the Professor and Root forming a close bond.

Of course, it doesn’t go that smoothly but I’m not going to spoil the rest of the story by telling you what happens next!

The Housekeeper and the Professor has a different tone to other books of Ogawa’s that have been translated into English. If you know her other work it’s dark, often very dark, but this is – dare I say it – heart-warming. Now if you’d told me that before I read it, I wouldn’t have bothered but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The relationship between Root and the Professor is lovely and the mathematics – for someone who knows little beyond the basics – is really quite interesting. The one thing I would have liked was for the story of the Professor and his sister-in-law to be explored further. There were hints that something more complex was at play there but little was revealed.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend The Housekeeper and the Professor, especially if the thought of Ogawa’s darker books makes you shudder!


Thanks to Vintage for the review copy.

7 thoughts on “The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

  1. Lovely review, Naomi. I’m sure I’ll read this one at some point as I loved Revenge and The Diving Pool. I have a copy of Hotel Iris, so that’ll be the next Ogawa I read…but your review leaves me intrigued by The Housekeeper and the Professor, especially your comments regarding the sister-in-law…


  2. I can’t wait to read this, I loved Revenge so much that I went out and bought all her books! (Last year obviously!). I’ve read Hotel Iris which is very, very odd, but I just love her writing style.


  3. I thought this was a bit of a gem and clearly not in the vein of Yoko Ogawa’s usual dark characters which she excels at. To discover she could write this kind of philosophical, ‘buddhist’ type story only raises my regard for her talent. It is the kind of story that makes a good old fashioned, heart-warming film, if only they still made films like that, a kind of Cinema Paradiso, Japanese style.

    I remember thinking of Ogawa’s story and character when I read Before I Go To Sleep which also depicts a character who wakes up every day not remembering anything from the day before. It is interesting to compare how the two cope with getting back what they lost and it made me wonder if Ogawa, like S.J.Watson knew someone who suffered from the same condition.

    Good to know there is plenty more Yoko Ogawa to be translated into English.


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