Cecily's Reviews > The Housekeeper + The Professor

The Housekeeper + The Professor by Yōko Ogawa
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May 30, 2012

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bookshelves: miscellaneous-fiction, china-japan-asia, solitary-protagonist, ageing-and-old-age, family-parenting
Read from June 08 to 09, 2012

An enjoyable Japanese novel that scatters numbers, and facts about the brain, though it's primarily about friendship. It feels light, but prompts profound questions.

The sit

The eponymous housekeeper is a young single mother (herself the only child of a single mother) with a ten-year-old son. She becomes daily housekeeper to a former maths professor whose head injury in 1975 means he only remembers the most recent 80 minutes, plus things before 1975, nearly 20 years before the story is set (~1992).

Numbers are now the professor's life. He works on problems for magazine competitions, and he comes alive when he spots numbers or patterns to explain to his increasingly interested housekeeper. When he discovers his housekeeper has a son, he is adamant that the boy must come to the house after school and in the holidays: he adores children, and thinks their needs (or his exaggerated perception of them) are more important than anything else. Thus a relationship is built between the prof and the boy (nicknamed Root - as in square root), based on numbers and baseball statistics. His short memory span makes him an incredibly patient teacher.

Despite all the notes, he has to start each day, each situation, anew. (The hire and fire nature of a housekeeping agency has parallels.)

The practicalities and humour of coping with the prof's condition are well portrayed, and the relationships are very touching.

The questions

Despite the efforts of the housekeeper and her son, the professor's capacity for joy seems literally limited.

* Is there much point having any sort of friendship with or giving happiness to someone who will not remember it?

* The housekeeper and her son learn so much from the professor, but does he get anything meaningful in return?

I think he benefits. Even if his pleasure is transient, it is still pleasure. Even if he can't consciously recall it later, it surely adds to his general sense of well-being. The fact his relationship with the housekeeper and her son develops to a deep bond implies a degree of memory and benefit.

If we really believed the only reason for being kind to someone was the certainty that they'd remember it, the world would be full of neglected babies and toddlers, who developed into cold and disturbed adults. Fortunately, only a very few people operate that way.

Don't be put off by the numbers

Some of the maths may be a little obscure for some readers, but not fully understanding it shouldn't impair enjoyment of the book. The prof's message is not about right answers, but listening to and feeling numbers, and there are times when the passion borders on religious:
"I needed this eternal truth... I needed the sense that this invisible world was somehow propped up by the visible one... Somehow this line would help me find peace."


Related books

This has some similarities with:
* Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (see my review HERE).
*Iris Murdoch's The Word Child (see my review HERE).

David Mitchell cites it as one of his five favourite Japanese novels: http://www.avclub.com/article/david-m...

Update
Review updated August 2017 after Tsung Wei prompted me to think more about what I'd written.
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Reading Progress

08/01/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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Sofia I really enjoyed this book (even though I hate math lol).


Cecily Yes, I think the fact non-mathematical types (me, too) can enjoy the book is a credit to the writing.


message 3: by Caroline (last edited Sep 26, 2014 03:53AM) (new) - added it

Caroline A wonderful review, and what a marvellous sounding basis for a novel. The professor has such riches in one way, and such paucity in others - and there seem to be people in his life to take advantage of the riches and hopefully to give him friendship, (albeit within the strict limits of his memory) in return.


Cecily Caroline, even though you have not yet read the book, I think you've encapsulated it better than I did!


message 5: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Cecily wrote: "Yes, I think the fact non-mathematical types (me, too) can enjoy the book is a credit to the writing."

Yes - I don't dislike maths but I've never liked them as much as I did in this book.


Cheryl lovely review of a gem of a novel, Cecily, thanks for the Mitchell link too.


Renata Wow! Now I like David Mirchell even more! I've always been a word and language person, but I clearly recall being in a multicultural math class for teachers one year when a woman in her mid- forties stood up to introduce herself and instead of giving a version of what most of us had said (I never really clicked w math, I'm hoping this class will teach me some ways to make math more fun for my students) she spoke to how she loved filling a whole page or two in her math journal showing how she had solved a problem. To her it was the equivalent of writing poetry. Her revelation and description changed my view of math forever. It allowed me to completely appreciate the Professors perspective. It was a small book w a big heart and human insights that I have had occasion to return to again and again in my life over the years. For many books I only recall I enjoyed them. This one I feel I lived.


Renata Thank you for sharing the link to the David Mitchell article - now I have two more great books to add to my list. I just saw the new film Mr. Holmes w Ian McKellan. It reminded me of the Housekeeper and the Professor.


BlackOxford I think it might not be as light as you think.


message 10: by Cecily (last edited Feb 08, 2017 12:24AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Cecily Renata wrote: "Wow! Now I like David Mirchell even more! I've always been a word and language person..."

Thanks for your long-ago comments, Renata. Looking at the date, I was probably on hols, relying on a phone, for which notifications are even less reliable, hence I didn't reply. Anyway, thanks for your kind comment, and I'm glad you have now enjoyed this book.


Cecily BlackOxford wrote: "I think it might not be as light as you think."

"Perhaps", as I caveated.
;)


Cecily BlackOxford wrote: "I think it might not be as light as you think."

And now that I've read your amazing review, I see what you mean!


Tsung Nice review Cecily. You've posed some interesting questions. Is there much point having any sort of friendship with or giving happiness to someone who will not remember it? The housekeeper and her son learn so much from the professor, but does he get anything meaningful in return?


Cecily Tsung Wei wrote: "Nice review Cecily. You've posed some interesting questions...."

Thanks, Tsung Wei, and I'm glad to see you enjoyed this book, too.

I have no real answers to my questions, though I think it's good for the giver to do something kind, even if the benefit is transient for the recipient. And who's to say the latter is true anyway? The prof may not remember the specifics, but I think he benefits from the general kindliness.

I used to have a colleague who joked that when he had children, he wouldn't give or do anything expensive to or with them until they were seven, as they wouldn't remember anything before that. At least, I think he was joking!

Anyway, I may update my review to include my additional thoughts. Thanks for prompting them.


Laysee A thought provoking review, Cecily. Life is lived in the moment. Eighty minutes fully lived is abundant, I think.


Cecily Laysee wrote: "A thought provoking review, Cecily. Life is lived in the moment. Eighty minutes fully lived is abundant, I think."

Wise words, Laysee. Thank you. And I'm glad you enjoyed the book as well.


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