We’ve all read books where the first thing we’ve wanted to do when we finished reading the last page was to start over again from the beginning. Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel “A Tale for the Time Being” is certainly one of those books; but it also isn’t one of those books. The reason for this is, while it is almost certain you will be enchanted by this novel, you might get the feeling that a second reading could change the way you were initially affected by the story. This is partially because you won’t be the same person you were when you first started reading. It may also be because the story itself will be different – either for you, or that the story itself will change. This might not make a whole lot of sense – at least not until you’ve read this book!
The back cover of this book says “within the pages of this book lies the diary of a girl called Nao. Riding the waves of a tsunami, it is making its way across the ocean. It will change the life of the person who finds it. It might just change yours, too.” That sounds almost bombastic, and yet at the same time, it is an awesome teaser. Especially because its publication date coincides with the 2nd anniversary of the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 – the one that no one seems to remember. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
What we have here is an incredible melding of fiction and reality. On the one hand, we have Nao’s diary – the pages written by a 16 year old Japanese girl who grew up in the USA, and is living a tortured life in Tokyo. Her father – a computer programmer – became unemployed and bankrupt when the dot-com bubble burst, forcing their family to return to Japan. Nao doesn’t fit into her new school and becomes the brunt of their ridicule and a scapegoat for their torture. On the other hand, you have Ruth – a real-life novelist, film maker and Buddhist Priest – who has placed herself in the story. However, Ruth’s life has been partially fictionalized and here she is living on a small island in British Colombia, Canada. It is on the shores of this island that she finds a washed-up package that contains a Hello Kitty lunch box, carefully wrapped in plastic and covered in barnacles from its travels. That pink box contains Nao’s diary (in English, hidden inside the cover of Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” aka “In Search of Lost Time”), a wristwatch, some letters (in Japanese) and a notebook (in French). This book recounts everything Ruth has found, while in parallel Ruth attempts to unravel the mysteries behind all of these items.
There are other characters, as well. There is Jiko – Nao’s 104 year old great-grandmother who is a Buddhist nun, and the reason why Nao is writing the diary – to tell Jiko’s stories. We also get Oliver, Ruth’s husband, whose stalwart rationalism as a scientist is tempered by his enormous heart as he listens to Ruth read the contents of Nao’s lunch box. Then we have Haruki #1 – Nao’s great uncle who died during WW2 as a kamikaze pilot, along with Haruki #2 – Nao’s father. Sneaking around in the background is Ruth’s mother, and the painfully unfinished book Ruth wants to write about her after she died from Alzheimer’s, together with Ruth and Oliver’s cat – Schrödinger, who they refer to as Pesto – a loving morphing of the word “pest”.
Location also comes into this novel, with parts of the story that take place in Japan with Nao, as compared to those sections that take place on Ruth’s storm swept Canadian island. All of this comes with smatterings of both ancient and modern colloquial Japanese that have been generously translated in the footnotes, together with any slightly obscure references which are explained in five appendixes. This last addition heightens the feeling of this book’s mixing of fiction with reality.
But in all honesty, to critique this novel by its characters, settings or technical aspects, would do this book a huge injustice. This is because of the Zen included here; the yin and yang of the various aspects of these stories, and how they form a whole. But even more than that, this novel asks the reader to carefully take a look – not only at the many parts included, or the whole that these different components make, but equally at that very thin line where everything connects and comes together – and then go on to investigate that line.
Both Ruth and Nao take us through their personal journeys through this investigation, and we, the readers travel with them. This is done both as individuals and in how they relate to each other. You might ask how it is possible for two people, who never meet, and are living in different times, can have a relationship. One way is through the author’s ability of to make the reader empathize with her characters – which Ozeki does with superb mastery. Another is through how Ozeki presents these two women’s voices. Ruth speaks to the reader as a sort of narrator of the story, showing her living her life and how she connects to the diary in the present. Nao’s diary, on the other hand, has been written as a letter to the unknown stranger of the future who she hopes will find it. This draws us further into their stories, while asking us to become students of the essence of what is time and what is being.
This may sound like it could be a heavy philosophical tome, but the ethereal quality of the writing keeps this novel from ever feeling the least bit weighty. Ozeki’s style is filled with what seem like off-handed metaphors whose meanings are both subtle and vivid, that you might think you’re watching this on film. The rice-paper thinness of the prose belies its hidden depths, and makes reading this into something totally experiential. It’s as if the story washes over you like a lightly perfumed mist or dances on your thoughts like the whisper of a sweet, fresh breeze of spring on the air. In short, “A Tale for the Time Being” is a totally unique novel and one that will probably create its own sort of earthquake and tsunami – and rightly so, because it is just that marvelous.
Ruth Ozeki’s novel “A Tale for the Time Being” deserves far more than only five stars out of five, and isn’t just highly recommended, it should be mandatory reading! If you read only one book this year, make it this one.
This review was originally published on Curious Book Fans. “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki, was published by Canongate, March 2013, with thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy.