Yōko Ogawa’s 2003 The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel is a stand-alone mainstream novel about … a housekeeper and a professor. The 2009 translation is by Stephen Snyder.
The housekeeper, a hard-working single mother, is used to Akebono Housekeeping Agency’s frequent reassignments. Her latest client has very particular needs, needs that previous domestic staff struggled to meet. Will the housekeeper be successful where others failed or will she be another anonymous face in a succession of housekeepers?
The professor is a brilliant man whose career was cut short by a traffic accident in 1975. Brain-damaged, he can no longer incorporate new memories into long-term memory. Instead, recent experiences are forgotten after eighty minutes. His sister-in-law, who is footing the bills, compares his recent memory to an eighty-minute video tape1.
The professor has inflexible preferences, but he isn’t actively unfriendly. The housekeeper and the professor prove well suited to each other, bonding over the professor’s beloved mathematics, a field previously impenetrable to the housekeeper. Despite the substantial impediment imposed by her need to reintroduce herself each time they meet, they become friends.
Discovering that the housekeeper has a son, the professor insists she bring the boy to work despite this being a transgression of Akebono Housekeeping Agency’s regulations. The professor dotes on the boy, who he names “Root” because the boy’s head reminds him of a square root sign.
The trio spend happy days together. Happiness is of course transient, as is the housekeeper’s assignment to the professor. Fate in the form of her employer must intervene in the pleasant interlude.
Ogawa has written speculative fiction, which is why I picked up this book. It’s not spec fic but it does chime with her exploration of memory in other works.
Readers who have been yearning for a novel in which people bond over pure and applied mathematics look no further2. This is the book for which you were looking. In fact, readers normally averse to mathematics will also enjoy this short novel.
This novel is steadfastly quiet and non-dramatic. There is a moment where, if this were a Western novel, the housekeeper and her son would be permanently parted from the professor (and where, if this were Canadian literature, Root would die tragically in a Governor-General’s‑Medal-related mishap). In fact, the parting is short-lived. There is no drama. That doesn’t matter because the point isn’t drama.
Instead, the author provides the reader with an enthralling study of three close friends over a period of time. She succeeds so well at this that the absence of melodrama does not matter. I found reading this an enjoyable change of pace.
1: A now archaic technology in common use at the time in which the novel is set.
2: If you wanted a work by this author even more focused on mathematics than this novel, consider Ogawa’s An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics, coauthored with Masahiko Fujiwara. [Editor’s note: this does not seem to be available in English. Good luck obtaining the Japanese version and updating your Japanese mathematical vocabulary.]