The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Translated by Stephen Snyder

Well, it’s rare that I experience a reading failure, as I always try to choose books I think will give me *something* or that I’ll engage with. However, my first read of 2021, a book I chose for the Japanese Literature Challenge, turned out to be not one for me. The book in question is “The Housekeeper and The Professor” by Yoko Ogawa, and it comes highly rated; I’ve seen any number of glowing reviews, and bloggers I follow love it. I don’t, and I’ll try to explain why.

Plotwise, the book is initially intriguing; a young woman is employed as a housekeeper for an ageing professor of mathematics; the latter has memory issues following an accident decades ago, and can only retain memories from the last 80 minutes after which things are wiped clean and his memory starts again. Anything from before the accident is fine, so he still has his mathematical skills, but day to day living is problematic. The Housekeeper is employed by his sister-in-law, referred to throughout as The Widow, and the other character in the story is the housekeeper’s son. He’s nicknamed Root because his flat head reminds The Professor of the square root sign; and the book follows the bonds that develop between the three main characters, while The Housekeeper copes with having to reintroduce herself to her employer every morning…

So far, so good – the premise of the book *is* appealing. However, I had a number of issues which in brief are:

1. I failed to engage with any of the characters; the writing felt flat, the main protagonists underdeveloped and I felt detached from the whole reading experience.
2. The plot was again underdeveloped; there was far too much unsaid and unexplored, and several hints were so low-key you could miss them. Without giving too much away, there was a situation with The Widow and The Professor which could, and should, have been expanded – I think my feelings boil down to the fact that this book was very undercooked and could have been much more than it actually was.
3. I understand why the author gave the characters titles, not names, as I imagine they were meant to represent that part of Japanese society – an esteemed Professor, a lowly Housekeeper – but that didn’t help with the distancing effect.
4. In many ways, I often felt that the setting of Japan was irrelevant to the book and it could have been anywhere – I never got a strong feeling of being in Japan.
5. Baseball and Maths…. Much of the plot (and the book) hangs on the twin prongs of baseball and maths. The Professor sees the world in terms of numbers and attempts to transmit this to The Housekeeper and Root. And strangely, for an uneducated person who’s had to bring herself up, she grasps compex formulae and sees the beauty of numbers. The book is riddled with formulae which lost me – I’m not mathematical and tbh this left me cold – and I found this element too prominent. As for baseball, the Professor and Root are obsessed by it (fair enough); but it becomes again the most important thing for the little pseudo-family, and dominates the book to the point that I completely switched off.

Well, I could go on, but I won’t. You might wonder why I actually finished the book, but I found it so slight that I read it in a day; I kept hoping it would develop into something stronger, but it didn’t. The end frankly peters out and I was left wondering what had been the point? If Ogawa was trying to show that the most unlikely combination of people can form a kind of family group, she could have done so without being so heavy on the maths and baseball, and in fact what happens in the book could be told in novella length. There was so sketchy a backstory for the characters that I could find nothing to latch onto; they seemed like stereotyped cardboard cut outs to me. And much more should have been made of The Widow. There *were* some nice touches to the story; the fact that The Professor had little scraps of paper attached to his clothing to remind him of important things; the occasional hint to events in the past which had led up to the current situation; but these were not enough to compensate for the rest of it.

Enough. This was not a book for me, and I’m just glad that I didn’t spend longer with it. I accept that it may just be me; my expectations may have been too high and I could have been anticipating a completely different book; and I know many love it. But I found it slight, underdeveloped and completely underwhelming. I don’t often write negative reviews, but this was an unfortunate start to my Japanese Literature Month reading, and I wanted to at least share my thoughts. If you’ve read the book and felt differently, do tell me why! As for my copy, I shall pass it on to my old friend J. who is a bit of a Japanophile – maybe it will work better for her! 😀