Thursday, March 11, 2010

book review - The Professor + The Housekeeper - Yoko Ogawa

"Everything around us was glowing in the sunlight; even the dried sheels of the insects floating in the fountain seemed to glitter. The most important of the Professor's notes - the one that read 'My memory only lasts eighty minutes' - had come loose, and I reached over to adjust the clip."

There are more than a few moments when the Professor explains to his housekeeper about his obsession with perfect numbers that you are transported back to a maths classroom and feelings of inadequacy return to the surface. But very quickly you start to appreciate and understand why numbers can be so attractive and that side of the story becomes more background noise rather than in the foreground.

The foreground is dominated by three characters - The Professor, the housekeeper and her ten year-old son. The Professor is a mathematical expert and managed to shine in both his native Japan and at Cambridge before being involved in a car accident that gave him brain damage and an 80 minute memory.

To compensate he covers himself with notes that are designed to remind him of what he is doing day today as he keeps going back to the start goldfish style every 80 minutes.

You expect the relationship between the housekeeper and the professor to grow and perhaps at moments even wish for his memory problems to be overcome. But the key to the relationship is the son. The old professor loves children and responds to the 10 year old in a way that has eluded the housekeeper.

But as the friendship between the three grows with the young boy enjoying the fatherly affection from the Professor absent in his own life and the housekeeper discovering a side to herself she had locked up in the pressure to look after her son it is broken up by the housekeeping agency.

The friendship is not seen for what it is and the housekeeper is moved onto another account and with his memory problems the professor can do very little to defend the friendship.

When they do overcome the resistance the cynicism that has existed is removed and in a very moving conclusion you are reminded of the power of literature to provoke feelings in a reader that can be very profound.

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