Author, Book review, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, Yoko Ogawa

‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 180 pages; 2010. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

After working my way through a slew of dark novels, how wonderful to pick up Yoko Ogawa‘s The Housekeeper and the Professor — published under the title The Gift of Numbers in some territories — which proved to be a rather charming read.

A housekeeper and her client

First published in Japan in 2003 but set in the early 1990s, the book traces the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes. This means that every morning when she arrives on his doorstep to begin her shift, she must introduce herself, because he cannot remember who she is.

“What’s your shoe size?”
This was the Professor’s first question, once I had announced myself as the new housekeeper. No bow, no greeting. If there is one ironclad rule in my profession, it’s that you always give the employer what he wants; and so I told him.
“Twenty-four centimetres.”
“There’s a sturdy number,” he said. “It’s the factorial of four.”
He folded his arms, closed his eyes, and was silent for a moment.
“What’s a factorial?” I asked at last. I felt I should try to find out a bit more, since it seemed to be connected to his interest in my shoe size.
“The product of all the natural numbers from one to four is twenty-four,” he said, without opening his eyes. “What’s your telephone number?”
He nodded, as if deeply impressed. “That’s the total number of primes between one and one hundred million.”
It wasn’t immediately clear to me why my phone number was so interesting, but his enthusiasm seemed genuine. And he wasn’t showing off: he struck me as straightforward and modest. It nearly convinced me that there was something special about my phone number, and that I was somehow special for having it.

Initially, the housekeeper is slightly wary of the Professor — she is the ninth housekeeper he has had in a very short space of time — but it doesn’t take long for them to develop a good working relationship. Their conversations mainly turn around numbers, because they “were his way of reaching out to the world”.

Later she is  given permission for her 10-year-old son to come to the Professor’s house after school. The Professor dubs him Root after the square root sign — “a generous symbol, it gives shelter to all the numbers” — and helps him with his homework.

A love of mathematics

The narrator’s quiet, understated voice draws you in as she begins to understand that the Professor sees numbers as a source of comfort. Over time, she, too, develops a love of numbers.

In school, I had hated math so much that the mere sight of the textbook made me feel ill. But the things the Professor taught me seemed to find their way effortlessly into my brain — not because I was an employee anxious to please her employer but because he was such a gifted teacher.

Not a great deal happens — this isn’t an action-packed book with a fast-moving plot — but it’s such an endearing story that it’s difficult not to be moved by its simplicity and its quiet little moments of triumph, joy and sadness. Its tinged with nostalgia and melancholia, but is never depressing or “heavy”.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a novel about finding order in a world of chaos. It’s a wonderfully refreshing look at making connections with people in a way that defies the usual societal conventions and is written in eloquent prose dotted with theorems and equations, which read like poetry.

Despite the fact the trio — an uneducated single mother, a young boy and a learned man with a head injury — seem to have nothing in common, a shared love of baseball brings them together (thanks to all the statistics related to batting averages, home runs and so on). Without them even realising, they form a kind of family based on mutual respect, trust and friendship. And I loved spending time with them.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Doubleday, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Paolo Giordano, Publisher, Setting

‘The Solitude of Prime Numbers’ by Paolo Giordano (translated by Shaun Whiteside)


Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday; 352 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A novel written by a particle physicist that features mathematics and numbers may not be all that surprising. But what is surprising about Paulo Giordano’s debut, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, is the age of the author — he’s just 26 — and the outstanding success, both critically and commercially, that the book has garnered.

According to the publisher, the book has sold more than 1.2 million copies across 34 countries since its publication in Italy last year. It has topped the Dutch and Spanish bestseller lists and scooped five literary awards, including Italy’s premier literary award, the Premio Stega.

Earlier this year, I heard the author interviewed on BBC Radio 5’s Book Reviews with Simon Mayo show, and everyone on the panel raved about it. I decided then that I really ought to read it because surely it couldn’t be that good? Or could it?

Well, I’m afraid to say that you’ll get no dissident voice from these quarters. The book is a delight. It’s literary without being pretentious, which probably explains its extraordinary success. But it also tells a wonderful story about two intriguing characters, Alice and Mattia, and their intertwined destinies.

Both Alice and Mattia are loners, who have been scarred by childhood tragedies. Alice suffered a terrible skiing accident which left her with a pronounced and permanent limp, while Mattia abandoned his mentally disabled twin sister in a park to go to a party, and when he returned she was gone, never to be found. These two irreversible episodes have manifested themselves in psychological conditions: Alice is anorexic, Mattia is a self-harmer.

Interestingly, Giordano doesn’t sensationalise or glorify their conditions, they’re merely character traits and never explored in any great depth. Indeed, Alice is so successful at hiding her illness that no one, not even the closest of family members, ever seems to notice it. (This, I admit, annoyed me a little: how could you not notice someone shoving food in napkins or fainting, because they’re so undernourished?)

The story, which spans 24 years, follows these two characters from childhood to adulthood, as they grapple with their lives and make decisions about their futures. The third-person narrative keeps the momentum going by toying with the idea that Alice and Mattia are destined to be together.

Mathematicians call them twin primes: they are pairs of prime numbers that are close to one another, almost neighbours, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from really touching. Numbers like 11 and 13, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43. If you have the patience to go on counting, you discover that these pairs gradually become rarer. […] Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another.

I won’t spoil it by revealing whether they do, in fact, get their acts together, because most of the fun of reading The Solitude of Prime Numbers is discovering whether they will ever become truly romantically involved. What I will say is this: the ending is not the predictable one that seems to loom at around the 290-page mark, which only made my love for this book all the stronger.

This is by no means a perfect novel, but it’s an extraordinarily human one, melancholy and inspiring by turns. It also comes across as being very wise, particularly in terms of familial relationships, friendship, marriage and parenthood, as if Giordano is much, much older than his years. He also has an uncanny ability to get inside the head of a teenage girl who is desperate to be liked by her peers, and the scenes in which Alice is bullied at high school are incredibly authentic.

Assuming Giordano continues to pursue a writing career, rather than a scientific one, then he will definitely be one to watch in the future. But in the meantime, I suspect his debut will continue to sell like hotcakes, as indeed it should.

Author, Book review, Canongate, England, Fiction, general, literary fiction, Publisher, Scarlett Thomas, Setting

‘PopCo’ by Scarlett Thomas


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 450 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I read dozens of novels every year but I can quite honestly say I’ve never read anything quite so weird nor as wonderful as Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo.

Thomas, who was named by The Independent in 2001 as one of the 20 Best Young Writers, has an idiosyncratic style that is fiercely intelligent but imminently readable. This is a book that brims with ideas, is stuffed full of one-liners, and even includes a crossword puzzle and a list of prime numbers at the rear. It’s hugely ambitious, wanders off on what seems like a million tangents and editorializes on everything from the state of Western medicine to the “cruelty” of the dairy industry, but somehow it all comes together to form a coherent and immensely entertaining narrative.

The story revolves around Alice Butler, a 29-year-old “creative” at PopCo, a global toy company (“the third largest in the world”), during an “away” trip in the English countryside. With all the employees pitted against each other to come up with a new product for the teenage girl market, Alice buzzes with excitement and creativity. But then she begins receiving secret coded messages, which indicate that there might be more going on in PopCo than meets the eye.

Alongside this main narrative thread is a back story about Alice’s childhood in which she was raised by her  grandparents, two mathematical geniuses, whom she very much adored. This gives us a glimpse of the girl who grew up to be a fiercely independent woman with a penchant for numbers and puzzles. From this we learn not only about her troubled schooldays in which she was too geeky to fit in, but about the highly secretive work involving code-breaking and treasure-hunting, to which her grandfather devoted his life.

Throw in a healthy bit of romance (and sex), a whole lot of stuff about marketing and mathematics, and you’ll get some brief idea of what PopCo is about.

While I can’t say that I found the ending particularly satisfying (it seemed slightly too far-fetched for my liking), I did very much enjoy reading this book and learning about code-breaking and all kinds of mathematical rules, which surprised me given I am not a numbers person at all. But what I loved most about this book was its cynicism, particularly in relation to marketing and the dubious practices some advertisers carry out.

This is what Alice begins to realise part-way through the book:

It is all dishonest. We are twenty-first century con artists. Marketing, after all, is what you do to sell people things they don’t need. If people needed, say, a T-shirt with a logo on it, no one would have to market the idea to them. Marketing, advertising… What started off being, ‘Hey, we make this! Do you want it?’ turned into ‘If you buy this, you might get laid more,’ and then mutated into, ‘If you don’t buy this, you’ll be uncool, no one will like you, everyone will laugh at you and you may as well kill yourself now. I’m telling you this because I am your friend and you have to trust me.’ Marketing is what gives value to things that do not have any actual intrinsic value. We put eyes on a bit of plastic, but it is marketing that actually brings the piece of plastic to life. It is marketing that means we can sell a 10p bit of cloth for £12.99.

There’s no doubt that PopCo has a conscience and treads a subversive line, but it is also quirky, unusual and damn good fun and is perfect if you’re looking for something a little different to cleanse the reading palette. Highly recommended.