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by Yoko Ogawa & translated by Stephen Snyder

Pub Date: Feb. 9th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-312-42780-1
Publisher: Picador

From Japanese author Ogawa (The Diving Pool, 2008), the story of a struggling single mother who takes a job looking after an elderly mathematician with an unusual disability.

When the Akebono Housekeeping Agency dispatches the unnamed heroine to the shabby cottage occupied by the titular academic, there is little reason to think she would last any longer than the previous nine women who briefly worked there. He’s clearly not the average client. Seventeen years earlier the professor was in a devastating car accident that left him brain damaged, only able to remember 80 minutes at a time. He gets through the day solving math problems, and attaches notes to his clothes to remember what he needs to do. His memories prior to the accident, however, remain crystal clear, and he survives off the generosity of his widowed sister-in-law, on whose property he lives. Initially he’s not much of a talker, but the sweet, almost childlike housekeeper takes a liking to the vulnerable old man, even as she has to reintroduce herself to him every day. He teaches her about the elegance and order of numbers—his passion—while she dotes on him like a daughter. Through his lessons she sees the unexpected poetry in math and sets about solving some problems of her own. She also introduces him to her ten-year-old son, who he nicknames “Root” because the flat top of his head reminds him of the square-root sign. The professor instantly bonds with the fatherless boy, so she and Root spend more and more time at the professor’s home. The trio begins to resemble a family, with an unspoken understanding of each other that transcends language and convention. Trouble calls, though, when the sister-in-law, who has her own complicated history with the professor, misinterprets the housekeeper’s kindness as something more devious. Ogawa’s disarming exploration of an eccentric relationship reads like a fable, one that deftly balances whimsy with heartache.

Simple story, well told.