For some reason, I thought this book was going to be sentimental. To be fair, when you summarize the plot, it sounds like that sort of book. But my friend Laura recommended it to me, and she’s not one for sappy stuff. I should have known better. And as it turns out, this book is gentle and kind, but never less than real about our lives together in a world that is passing away.
The housekeeper (never named) comes to work for a retired mathematics professor through a cleaning service. She isn’t given much information, just the essentials: she’s to work certain hours each day, and she isn’t to trouble the employer, who lives in the main house. And one more thing: the professor was in a car accident in 1975, and now his memory lasts no longer than eighty minutes. When the housekeeper first meets the professor, he says, “What’s your shoe size?” She tells him, and he expatiates on the mathematical importance of it. And their relationship begins.
This book is about creating and navigating a relationship between two (and eventually three — the housekeeper’s son, Root, tags along) people who have nothing in common. Most books or movies that go that route tend to give those people adventures together, that build a bond — they make memories and become “found family.” But what if you had an adventure or a wonderful experience together, and one of the members of your found family forgot the bond after eighty minutes, didn’t recognize any of you, and had to begin again? How do you create a relationship then?
The professor is a kind and courteous man. He especially loves children, and his concern for ten-year-old Root is touching. His world has shrunk to the walls of his cottage and his eighty-minute memory, but his mind ranges among the infinity of numbers: he understands theorems that the housekeeper and Root can’t hope to grasp. Still, he’s a born teacher, and he frequently offers them facts about primes, factorials, amicable numbers, and many other lines out of (as he puts it) God’s notebook.
For her part, the housekeeper respects and cares for the professor. She cooks and cleans, trying to think of what would make him comfortable, even though he doesn’t seem to care much for externals. She listens to his talk about math, and responds as well as she can, even going to the library to learn more. And she has the benefit of memory, so she can understand the hints she begins to see of the professor’s history before 1975.
There’s so much more to this book that I haven’t mentioned — baseball (a most mathematical game), the care of children, the balance between the ephemeral and the eternal. This book feels light, but it has real weight. It’s wistful, but never depressing. I see that Yoko Ogawa is a very popular author in Japan — I would love to read more of her work.