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Byron Shire
May 8, 2021

Book review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

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by Yoko Ogawa, Vintage, pb RRP $19.95

There may be even more nuances to this story in the original Japanese, but translator Stephen Snyder has provided nuances aplenty in Yoko Ogawa’s sweet and moving tale. But don’t expect a saccharine soapie; this short novel is well grounded in the quotidian.

Despite the somehow risqué title, which makes it seem like a series of images which should be viewed through a coin-operated mutoscope at a seaside amusement parlour, The Housekeeper hardly steers near the sensual – unless you regard mathematics as highly erotic.

With a cast of only four main characters, one of them peripheral but important to the denouement, Ogawa takes us into a small world in which a housekeeper looks after a maths professor who has been in a car crash, which causes his memory to fail after 80 minutes. Thus his suit is tagged with little notes to remind him of various things, such as the name of his housekeeper.

The professor’s mind is still alive to mathematics, however. His delight in prime numbers inspires the housekeeper to make her own investigations, and there are some lovely moments such as the housekeeper’s epiphany in a supermarket on the nature of maths.

As the story goes on, told from the housekeeper’s first-person point of view, we discover that this single mum also has a son, who strikes up a remarkable friendship with the professor, sharing his love of maths and baseball.

It is a story of love and loss and self-discovery told in that quiet style of which many Japanese writers are masters. Ogawa is an easy way in to appreciating the Japanese writers, and I also heartily recommend the work of Haruki Murakami (randomhouse.com/features/murakami).

Ogawa is not all just quiet elegance, however. If you’re looking for something like an erotic mutoscope, it doesn’t come much stranger than Ogawa’s Hotel Iris.

– Michael McDonald

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