World Book Day review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

24017_largeSeeing as today is World Book Day, a celebration of reading and all things books, it’s time to crack out another review of a Japanese novel! I’ve been a bookworm since I was little, dressing up as various characters to mark World Book Day when I was at school, and have been writing my own stories since I was 9. The aim is to eventually get published but, as all writers know, you should write first and foremost because you love writing. I could easily write a whole essay about why reading is important – not just for children but for adults too – but let’s just say that I would be a very different person if I didn’t take away so much from books.

Instead of writing that essay, I’m going to review Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, a book about the magic of… mathematics. This might not seem like the natural subject for an emotive novel but Ogawa effortlessly works the most complicated of formulas to enhance a charming story about an elderly professor, his housekeeper and her young son.

Set in 1990s Japan, a young housekeeper is hired to tend to ‘the professor’, a mathematical genius who, ever since a traumatic head injury, has a memory lasting just eighty minutes. Every morning, he must refer to the notes pinned to his fraying suit and she has to reintroduce herself. The professor soon insists the housekeeper brings her young son to the house with her and nicknames him ‘Root’, and a strange friendship begins to blossom between the three of them.

The cast in The Housekeeper and the Professor is small and we do not even learn our three main characters names – they are only ‘the housekeeper’, ‘the professor’ and ‘Root’ – but they are wonderful characters nonetheless. The professor, despite his memory loss, uses numbers to connect the things and people around him and his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. Even his housekeeper’s shoe size, the number engraved on a watch or a baseball player’s number will have a significant link between them. The housekeeper, an initially shy woman with little interest in mathematics, and ‘Root’, a baseball-mad ten-year-old, get drawn into the professor’s world to the point that he even sets them homework.

You might not expect mathematics and novels to be natural bedfellows, but this would be a very different story without its formulas and magic numbers. The professor walks the housekeeper and Root through various formulas, from prime numbers to Euler’s formula, which not only helps the reader understand more about him but also makes mathematics extremely interesting. I’m sure mathematics students will say their subject already is interesting but it’s quite a feat for a book to make someone like me think “wow” about mathematics.

The Housekeeper and the Professor focuses mostly on character development and the beauty of mathematics, although there are a number of ‘incidents’ to keep the plot moving, from the housekeeper’s encounter with the professor’s mysterious sister-in-law to an impromptu trip to a baseball game. Rather than a fast-paced read, it’s a charming story about three very different people and the magic of numbers. I highly recommend this for bookworms and mathematics fans alike!

Also, as it’s World Book Day, why not comment below and share some of your favourite books? What are the ones that have stuck with you long after you finished them?



3 thoughts on “World Book Day review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

  1. A beautiful review! This book has been on my to-read list for some time; I’ll eventually get to it. I’m sure I will because I belong to that rare breed of human beings who love literature and mathematics in equal measure. (That isn’t entirely true because I love literature and books more!)

    My favourite books? I always find that an extremely difficult question to answer; but these days I have a handy list of ten. (I made it a while ago when fellow readers on Facebook were tagging each other to list out their ten favourite books. When a friend finally got to me, I reinterpreted it as the ten books that made me the reader and writer I am. With that definition in mind, I managed to whittle down a list of over thirty into ten.) Here it is:

    1. The Groaning Shelf by Pradeep Sebastian
    2. Rereadings by Anne Fadiman (editor)
    3. Strange Beauty by George Johnson
    4. Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino
    5. Collected Fiction & Selected Non-Fiction by Jorge Luis Borges
    6. Little, Big by John Crowley
    7. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    8. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
    9. A Book of English Essays (Penguin)
    10. I. Asimov: A Memoir by Isaac Asimov

  2. Pingback: Blog’s best of 2016! | Sophie's Japan Blog

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