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Latest Review: "The Housekeeper and the Professor" by Yoko Ogawa

Before she left Picador to be an editor at Free Press, Amber Quereshi acquired a few books by Japanese author Yoko Ogawa. The first, The Diving Pool came out last year, The Housekeeper and the Professor is the second and released earlier this spring, and there’s one more in the works. (Can’t remember the title, but I know Stephen Snyder is also translating it.)

Ogawa is a pretty big figure in the contemporary Japanese publishing and has written a ton of books, which, with a little luck, will see the light of day in English after this three-book deal runs out. (Any interested publishers—I think Anna Stein is the agent for this . . .)

Anyway, Will Eells is one of my two Japanese-reading interns this semester and is working toward a Certificate in Literary Translation. This is his first review. And it opens:

Contemporary Japanese literature is all too easy to stereotype. As far as the American reading public goes, the only books that come out of Japan seem to be under one of three genres. The first is the “bizarre things happening in an otherwise normal setting” in the mold of Haruki Murakami. As one of the most successful authors to come out of a non-American or Western-European country in the last thirty years, Murakami is surely a success story that publishers want to recreate. The two other kinds of Japanese fiction published in America seem to be horror novels (Koji Suzuki’s The Ring, et al) and hard-boiled, nihilistic crime novels (think Natsuo Kirino and anything yakuza-related.) Of course, this has led to over-saturation on the bookshelves, and I’ve become completely fatigued by novelists that take an ordinary person with an ordinary life in Tokyo, and then throws in a ghost, or alien, a murder, or any event or characters with motivations completely unexplained to the reader for the protagonist to deal with for instant tension. Why does Japan seem to have a monopoly on novels with extraordinary premises? What happened to all the Japanese realists?

Reading Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was consequently a breath of fresh air, a beautiful and bittersweet tale by a talented female writer. Ogawa has become a huge critical and popular success in Japan in the last twenty years, winning numerous literary awards including the Akutagawa Prize, the Yomiuri Prize, and the Tanizaki Prize, while also having one of her novels (the one in question) adapted for the screen in 2006. She is also now one of the jurors for the Akutagawa Prize Committee.

Click here for the full review.



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