‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa; ‘The Mercy Papers’ by Robin Romm; ‘A Hidden Life’ by Johanna Reiss


The Housekeeper and the Professor

A Novel

Yoko Ogawa

Picador: 180 pp., $14 paper

More than 2.5 million copies of this gorgeous, cinematic novel have been sold in Japan since its publication in 2003. Yoko Ogawa has published more than 20 books; this is the second to be published in English. The first, “The Diving Pool,” contained three eerie novellas; critics wondered why she hadn’t been translated sooner. “The Housekeeper and the Professor” is a perfectly sustained novel (a tribute to Stephen Snyder’s smooth translation); like a note prolonged, a fermata, a pause enabling us to peer intently into the lives of its characters. The housekeeper is young, with a 10-year-old son who loves baseball. The professor is an aging mathematician whose memory lasts for only 80 minutes before it is erased and he must begin again. He can’t remember anything after 1975. He and the boy become friends, and he instills in the boy a love for mathematics. “It’s important to use your intuition,” he tells the housekeeper. “You swoop down on the numbers, like a kingfisher catching the glint of sunlight on the fish’s fin.” When he tells the boy that the number two is the “leadoff batter for the infinite team of prime numbers after it,” the boy worries that two will get lonely. “If it gets lonely,” the professor explains, “it has lots of company with the other even numbers.” This novel has all the charm and restraint of any by Ishiguro or Kenzaburo Oe and the whimsy of Murakami. The three lives connect like the vertices of a triangle.

The Mercy Papers

A Memoir of Three Weeks

Robin Romm

Scribner: 212 pp., $22

“She’s building a boat to sail my mother out,” Robin Romm writes of the hospice nurse she does not like. “Barb will build the boat of morphine and pillows and then I will have no mother and the days will be wordless and empty.” Romm resents the way death whittles a great life down to a single certainty. Her mother, once a successful civil rights trial attorney, is diagnosed with cancer when Romm is a college freshman and dies nine years later. This memoir is a detailed chronicle of her mother’s last three weeks, but it is, of course, about much more. The book is full of the detritus of illness; the pills, plastic hospital accouterments, sheets and nightgowns layering over curling irons, makeup and clothes from a former life. The result is a kind of carapace that forms over Romm’s childhood and the mother she wants to remember. The memoir becomes an exercise in seeing things for what they are, in clearing the mind of wishful thoughts and romantic notions about this life. Romm gets a dog at Merced County Animal Control and names her Mercy, “for Merced and for what we all needed this year.” Mercy carries her through her mother’s death.

A Hidden Life

A Memoir of August 1969

Johanna Reiss

Melville House: 250 pp., $24.95

Johanna Reiss wrote one memoir, then discovered another hidden underneath. The first, “The Upstairs Room,” which describes the 2 1/2 years she hid from Nazis in a farmhouse attic in Holland, was a Newbery Honor winner for young adults. Reiss was encouraged to write it, and return to Holland in 1969, by her American husband. While she was there with her daughters, her husband, 37, killed himself. “A Hidden Life” is that second story, moving between 1940s Holland and 1960s New York City. “How do you tell children,” she thinks, “that life is one continuous goodbye, that with each day the end comes a little nearer . . .; how do you explain that people you’re close to, or thought you were, can just vanish?”