This month we travelled to Japan for our Read Around the World Book Club on Goodreads. I can honestly say that The Housekeeper + The Professor by Yoko Ogawa is one of the most beautiful, warm, gentle narratives exploring human connection that I have read in quite some time.
The Professor is a man in his sixties with a passion for maths and a memory that only lasts for eighty minutes at a time. His brain then resets back to the time of his accident in 1975 and so he has to constantly relearn in order to navigate his life. The Housekeeper is a young woman, very much starved of affection with low self-esteem and a sensitive soul, who is employed by the Professor’s sister in law, to take care of him. The Housekeeper also has a son, who the Professor names Root (due to the flat top of his head reminding him of a square root). The book charts their daily navigation of the Professor’s memory loss, but much more so the incredible bond that is forged between three lonely, lost souls. Along the way there is also a gorgeous exploration of maths – and I never thought I would write the word gorgeous to describe maths in any shape or form!
Maths is the leitmotif, the weaving thread and it is lyrical, personal and compelling. For me, maths and the connected logical thinking often feels like my nemesis. However, maths here symbolises communication, adventure and connection with the world. One of my favourite moments is when the Housekeeper describes the relationship between Root and the Professor in terms of prime numbers:
‘He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world.’
This is very much a character piece; the plot is there to showcase these three kindred spirits and their unique relationship with each other. However, at no point did I think the book lost focus and the slower pace did not affect my engagement with the book in the slightest.
I loved the character development very much. The isolated Professor comes alive through his relationship with Root and his quality of life is enriched immensely by the care of the Housekeeper. Root in turn blossoms thank to the Professor- his confidence, resilience and love for learning are really lovely to witness. As for the Housekeeper, she learns to take pride in herself, discovers her own love for learning and by finding herself, is able to form a closer relationship with her son. Ogawa delivers all this without a sugary coating; life can be sad and miracles are hard to find, but the beauty to be found shines through.
You might have noticed by now that this book does not have named characters. I knew this from the blurb and was worried that the characters would therefore be types, and consequently be harder to engage with. As it turns out, exactly the opposite happens. Human connection transcends the need for labelling.
We are only given glimpses of the Professor’s past, his only relative, the sister in law, remains abstract and only marginally involved in the storyline. Whilst I found this the one frustrating point, as I wanted to find out more about this quirky, utterly lovely man, I also found myself in the shoes of the Professor i.e. only seeing snapshots, trying to piece together what I found out. You see, I can’t even keep this as a negative!
The Housekeeper and the Professor is one of those books where you glance at its spine in years to come and get that really fond feeling inside. Simply beautiful. I shall leave you with one of my favourite descriptions of The Professor, which really spoke to the little girl inside, who believes she can’t do maths:
‘The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the ‘correct miscalculation’, for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers.’