The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

 

The delightful, quirky novel “The Housekeeper and the Professor” manages to weave such seemingly disparate elements as memory loss, mathematics and baseball into a poignant, very touching story.

The Professor, a brilliant mathematician, suffered a severe accident in 1975 and ever since, he lives with only 80 minutes of short-term memory.  Which means that the young Housekeeper, a struggling single mother, has to re-introduce herself to her employer every morning.  The Housekeeper has a young son who is kind and wise beyond his 10 years, and whose flat head amuses the Professor, who calls him Root, after the sign for a square root.

Mathematics are the life blood of the story, with problems and equations dotting not only every inch of the Professor’s ramshackle little cottage, but also the pages of the novel.  Forced to remember explanations and equations not thought about since school-days, the reader grudgingly follows Root and the Housekeeper as they tackle maths problems set for them by the amiable Professor.  Of course, when they triumphantly present him with the answer, he has invariably forgotten that he ever set them a problem at all.

The Professor’s other big passion, other than prime numbers, is baseball, about which he can rattle off any statistic – batting averages, number of catches, results – all pre-1975, of course.

The Professor is shambolic and vague, his one and only winter suit (and then his one and only summer suit) adorned with little scraps of paper that he pins on, to remind him of things.  Such as “My memory lasts only 80 minutes.”

As the relationship between the Housekeeper, the Professor and Root grows, in repetitive cycles of 80 minutes, the only family the professor has, his ill-tempered, crippled sister-in-law comes to resent what she fears is their hold over her brother-in-law.  She attempts to break up the perceived threat, unable to believe that the Housekeeper and Root are genuinely fond of the old man, with no ulterior motive.  The dénouement of this misunderstanding is dramatic and delightful.  The worried yet uncomprehending Professor settles the argument by writing down an equation.

A charming story that makes you think about numbers and infinity and the cycle of time.  And baseball.

The Housekeeper and the professor is published by Vintage books and the paperback costs £7.99

Personally recommended.

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