(2012) #53 review: The Housekeeper and the Professor


The Housekeeper and the Professor



Translated from the Japanese by  Stephen Snyder

180 pages

Published by  Picador in 2009
(originally published in Japanese in 2003)





rating system

This is such a beautiful, warm, and quiet book, short but rich with so many layers: memory, or the loss of it, and its connection with identity; relationships, friendship between generations; love or even obsession with maths! Even though the characters have no name, you feel like you know them and you became included in their story. The Housekeeper And The Professor is  a difficult book to review; the novel is more about the ambiance than the plot itself. You may even end up loving maths at the end!

If you are not familiar with Japanese literature, I highly recommend it to you. It will stay with you for a long time.


He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem–ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.

She is an astute young Housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him.

And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them. Though he cannot hold memories for long (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes), the Professor’s mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities–like the Housekeeper’s shoe size–and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together, even as his memory slips away.

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. [Goodreads]


Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa (alternate spelling Yôko Ogawa; Japanese: 小川 洋子) was born in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture, graduated from Waseda University, and lives in Ashiya with her husband and son. Since 1988, she has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction. Her novel The Professor and his Beloved Equation has been made into a movie. In 2006 she co-authored “An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics” with Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician, as a dialogue on the extraordinary beauty of numbers.

A film in French, “L’Annulaire” (The Ringfinger), directed by Diane Bertrand, starring Olga Kurylenko and Marc Barbé, was released in France in June 2005 and subsequently made the rounds of the international film festivals; the film, some of which is filmed in the Hamburg docks, is based in part on Ogawa’s Kusuriyubi no hyōhon (薬指の標本), translated into French as L’Annulaire (by Rose-Marie Makino-Fayolle who has translated numerous works by Ogawa, as well as works by Akira Yoshimura and by Ranpo Edogawa, into French). (The dockland setting and a significant subplot owe nothing to Ogawa’s novella. Interestingly, in conversation with the audience after a showing of the film at the Edinburgh Film Festival, 2006, Diane Bertrand said that she was not sure that she understood the book.)

Kenzaburō Ōe has said, ‘Yoko Ogawa is able to give expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology in prose that is gentle yet penetrating.’ The subtlety in part lies in the fact that Ogawa’s characters often seem not to know why they are doing what they are doing. She works by accumulation of detail, a technique that is perhaps more successful in her shorter works; the slow pace of development in the longer works requires something of a deus ex machina to end them. The reader is presented with an acute description of what the protagonists, mostly but not always female, observe and feel and their somewhat alienated self-observations, some of which is a reflection of Japanese society and especially women’s roles within in it. The tone of her works varies, across the works and sometimes within the longer works, from the surreal, through the grotesque and the–sometimes grotesquely–humorous, to the psychologically ambiguous and even disturbing. (Hotel Iris, one of her longer works, is more explicit sexually than her other works and is also her most widely translated.)



20 thoughts on “(2012) #53 review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

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  5. Curious. In contrast to Tony I read Hotel Iris and wasn’t such a big fan – something about it left me cold (and not because it’s a dark storyline). I would like to read this though as her writing intrigued me.


  6. Your first paragraph alone is perfect! You caught all the ways I, too, felt about this exquisite novel. Beautifully stated. (Who knew it would meet the requirement for so many challenges?)


  7. So love this novel. I’ll always remember the way Ogawa presented a family, for to me, that’s what they were. Not connected by birth, of course, but connected in every way that matters. Mostly, love and respect.


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