Publication date: 2009
Publisher: Harvill Secker (first published August 2003)
He is a brilliant maths professor with a peculiar problem – ever since a traumatic head injury some seventeen years ago, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.
She is a sensitive but astute young housekeeper with a ten-year-old son, who is entrusted to take care of him.
Each morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them. The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. He devises clever maths riddles – based on her shoe size or her birthday – and the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her little boy. With each new equation, the three lost souls forge an affection more mysterious than imaginary numbers, and a bond that runs deeper than memory.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family where one before did not exist.
Just like Ogawa’s other books, the characters of the Housekeeper and the Professor remain nameless. The housekeeper is a young, single mother who finds herself working for a professor who has lived with a limited memory since being in a car accident several years before. The Professor is a numbers man, a retired maths professor with an amazing skill for finding meaning in your age, shoe size, phone number or height.
Imagine turning up to work every day and having to introduce yourself all over again. The Professor has a memory that lasts 80 minutes, so working with him takes some patience.
With little else to occupy him, The Professor has a complete obsession with maths, so when I first started this book I was worried – I am not a mathematical person in any way, shape or form! I think I was right to be a bit concerned about this. There were several explanations of formula and mathematical puzzles throughout and as I really didn’t understand any of it, it certainly took away some of my enjoyment of the book. I also don’t know anything about baseball so that didn’t help things either.
That said, I did enjoy this charming story of unlikely friendship. It’s simple and it’s quaint but it’s powerful in its message exploring how love and compassion mean so much more than knowledge and memory.
“Solving a problem for which you know there’s an answer is like climbing a mountain with a guide, along a trail someone else has laid. In mathematics, the truth is somewhere out there in a place no one knows, beyond all the beaten paths. And it’s not always at the top of the mountain. It might be in a crack on the smoothest cliff or somewhere deep in the valley.”
See my other reviews of books by Yōko Ogawa here: