Each day the professor greets his housekeeper with a question about her shoe size or her birth date, looking for a number that will reveal what they have in common. Each day the housekeeper patiently answers. Years earlier, the professor had been in an accident which left him with a short-term memory of only 80 minutes. He begins life anew every morning, making reference to the notes pinned to his suit, which give him clues to his condition.
The professor is drawn to the housekeeper’s son, whom he calls ‘Root’ because his head reminds him of the square root sign. The three forge a unique bond: the housekeeper and her son take the professor to baseball games; the professor invites them into the world of mathematics. At a critical moment in the story, the professor says: “Eternal truths are ultimately invisible, and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena…. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them.” While he speaks of amicable or imaginary or prime numbers, he’s also speaking of the connections between people—in other words, love.
Yoko Ogawa is one of Japan’s preeminent writers, having won every major prize in that country since her first novel was published in 1988. Mathematics has also figured in some of her other works. In The Housekeeper and the Professor, it’s used to reveal the mystery of what brings and keeps people together.
A subtle, lyrical storyteller, Ogawa resists tying up the loose ends. Rather than feeling unresolved, The Housekeeper and the Professor lingers in the mind of the reader long after the book is finished.
The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder), Random House Australia.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2009.