Book Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

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My goal this year was diversity. I wanted culture, I wanted language, I wanted content. I wanted science and social studies and politics and history and sport. I wanted everything. It’s safe to say that my choices so far are satisfactory and well in line with my hopes and dreams. I’ve read another book before this one (How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran) and a review of that should come shortly, but let’s tackle this book first.

My first and only experiment with translated Japanese literature was Haruki Murakami –Kafka on the Shore, to be specific– and it puzzled me to no end. I remember loving the language and the writing, but the story was layer upon layer of complexity, and I usually ended up uncertain. But when a friend offered to lend me this book, which I’d nudged her to buy in the first place because I’d heard good things about it, I leaped at the chance to see what else Japan has to offer me.

Going into the book, I knew that the Professor’s memory only lasts 80 minutes, that he’s a mathematician. I knew he had a housekeeper. And that was about it.

I don’t know what I was expecting from this book. I certainly wasn’t expecting math to be the central topic, even though I probably should’ve. But the impressive thing is not just how the math is made relevant to the story, but rather how it portrays math. I’m one of those people who hate math; it frustrates me, I don’t understand it, and it was always my biggest challenge academically. And this book has achieved the miraculous feat of peaking my interest in math. It equates math with poetry; it makes it poetic, scenic, a conversation a starter, a jaw-dropper. It reads into formulas and rows of numbers and dates and shapes to move the book forward, to develop relationships, to convey emotions. And I’d never thought I’d see anything as such done through numbers.

The characters are magnificently described. I could see the Professor and imagine his physical being even though the book doesn’t ramble much on what each of the characters look like. But a few chapters into the book, I could feel their presence. I could see the Professor sitting at his desk, or staring out of the window at dusk, or spilling soup everywhere. There are little characteristic details tucked all over the book, and they’re exactly the sort of thing a housekeeper would notice. The same goes for Root, the housekeeper’s son, whom, now that I think about, we don’t ever get to discover the real name of.

Another topic that this book touches on often is baseball which I wasn’t aware is popular in Japan. So I learned something new!

I don’t want to talk too much about this book because it’s mostly about character development and relationship building and very little plot. And if I don’t want to strip you of the chance to dip into this book and discover these beautiful characters on your own. It’s quite a simple book. Don’t expect something mindblowing. Don’t expect a wild ride. Expect a chance to hang out by someone’s window and getting a brief look at their life, at the way they do things, at the way they treat others.

Let me know if you’ve read this book or if you’ve read anything else by the author. Also, recommendations for books by Japanese or just Asian authors would be greatly appreciated!

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

  1. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while. Nice review!

    I love Murakami. He’s one of my favorite authors (and my co-blogger and I just wrote a featured author post for him — not trying to plug but just mentioning b/c we both love him). I’ve given up on trying to completely understand his books but enjoy the journey. I recommend trying more of his books. Windup Bird was my favorite but i’ve like many of them. 1Q84 was also really good, but really long

  2. Huh…you have peaked my interest. Unfortunately, I’ve not read much of Asian authors. However, I do really enjoy Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri mystery series. I feel this series is similar to McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in that it gives you a feel for everyday Delhi Indian culture much as No. 1 does for Botswana. Light reading, humorous, and a mystery!

    • I actually haven’t read No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency yet. I mean, I do have the first book but still need to pick it up. And thanks for the recommendation, I’ll make sure that I look into it! 🙂

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