I read The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa recently, and loved it. The main protaganists in the story are not given actual names, and are simply known as the Professor, the Housekeeper and her son, Root.
The Professor is brilliant at Math and used to be a Math professor in a university. Due to a car accident in the 70s, the Professor suffered a head trauma which resulted in him having a memory span that lasts a mere 80 minutes, and remembering nothing after 1975. Ever since the accident, he has been unable to work and lives under the largesse of his sister-in-law in a cottage in her backyard. He spends all his time solving challenging Math puzzles, walks around with handwritten notes pinned to his clothes to remind him of the fact that his memory is only 80 minutes long.
The Housekeeper is a single mother who was hired to clean and cook for the Professor. She was allowed to bring her 10 year old son along with her and he gets on very well with the Professor. The boy was given the nickname Root because his flat-shaped head reminded the Professor of a square root sign. I thought the relationship depicted between the Professor and the little boy is beautiful.
“I’m going to call you Root,” he said. “The square root sign is a generous symbol, it gives shelter to all the numbers.”
The story revolves around the daily lives of these three characters, the growing relationship and affection that the Housekeeper and Root have for the Professor and vice versa, how the Housekeeper is slowly drawn towards the beauty of Math through the teaching abilities of the Professor. The story provides vignettes of the Professor’s daily life and how he struggles to live with a 80 minute timeframe before he completely forgets about the people and the events that had occurred in the last 80 minutes.
Besides the serious stuff, she has also weaved in plenty of interesting bits around Math, a subject which allows the handicapped Professor to remain connected with people and the real world. He has forgotten about many of the people and things around him but he did not forget Math or his love for children.
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.
The story is a simple, elegant and moving one. I like how the author manages to write so simply and with restraint, but without sacrificing the details and sentiment required to flesh out the personalities and affection that the characters have for each other. She makes me feel for the characters and that is an important factor in whether I enjoy a book.
I could not help but compare this book against The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami which I did not enjoy reading half as much. The writing in The Briefcase was too gentle and restrained, such that I felt nothing for the characters, or their story.
I am going to read Yoko Ogawa’s other books soon, possibly Hotel Iris comes next. I have just completed the first book in the Joe Sandiland crime novel series by Barbara Cleverly. I am not won over by her writing yet but will definitely be reading a couple more books in the series before I decide. I am mid-way through Uncommon Grounds, the first book in Sandra Balzo’s Maggy Thornsen series. (I think Maggy should always be spelt with an ‘ie’ at the end, as in Maggie. It looks better!) It is a breezy and entertaining crime novel, not at all dark and depressing. I also like that the female protagonist owns a cafe and most of the novels in the series seems to be coffee-related.
On a separate note, I just found out that someone I know pens a cool book blog called Book Of Words!