"A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be." In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there's only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates' bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who's lived more than a century. A diary is Nao's only solace--and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine. Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox--possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao's drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
One version of you might be intrigued. Another might pray it doesn't land on your shore.
Ozeki uses the relationship between author and schoolgirl to conflate past with present and fact with fiction, and A Tale for the Time Being – with translation footnotes, six appendices, a bibliography and quotations from Japanese Zen masters – is a metafiction wrestling with grand themes. Ruth and her husband contemplate quantum mechanics and Schrödinger’s cat. Nao and her father struggle with the modern notion that, thanks to an internet which catalogues mistakes, our past is ever present.
But the book is at its strongest not in these ambitious philosophical explorations, which can at times feel unsubtle, but in its quiet detailing of the love and pain of family life – in the moving depiction of the small hurts and comforts of Ruth’s marriage and in the painful portrait of the tortured relationship between Nao and her depressive father. ......she provides us with a compelling coming-of-age story.
Ruth and her husband Oliver live on a remote island in Desolation Sound on the western edge of British Columbia. A Hello Kitty lunchbox and a journal wash up on their shores; the journal appears to have been written by a 16-year-old girl living in Japan (but having grown up in California, giving her voice an American teenage edge) in the months prior to the earthquake and tsunami. Nao is a typical teenager, frustrated by adult authority and contemptuous of parental angst, expressing her rage through self-destructive impulses. She is also a wise and resilient soul. When her suicidal father takes her to spend a summer in a remote (yes, parallel) Buddhist monastery with her 104-year-old great grandmother, a Buddhist monk, Nao (pronounced Now) learns what it feels like to be valued, to be held, to be respected -- and to be held accountable. She learns meditation and she learns the satisfaction of basic, honest work. This sounds trite and, perhaps, incredible. But in Ozeki's capable narrative, it rings true. She starts as a bullied teenager who believes that finding meaning in life is bullshit and that staying busy is what makes life tolerable, that "...it doesn't matter what it is, as long as you can find something concrete to keep you busy while you are living your meaningless life." She grows into a young woman who wants to write the story of her great grandmother before she forgets, who understands the press of time because "I have a pretty good memory, but memories are time beings, too, like cherry blossoms or ginkgo leaves; for a while they are beautiful, and then they fade and die." This may sound fatalistic, but it's also simply the truth.
The bond that develops between Ruth and Nao through Ruth's reading of the journal and her research into the family's history is palpable and satisfying. The unfolding of Nao's relationship with Jiko, her old great grandmother, is exquisite. The interweaving of western and eastern thought, philosophy, and history exposes differences, certainly, but the shared humanity trumps all.
Nao's 16-year-old voice clangs occasionally, which is absolutely my only beef with [[Ruth Ozeki]]'s touching, honest, and fulfilling novel. This is already one of my favorite reads of the year.
This is a review of two books although Ruth Ozeki laughingly (in my mind) intends you to view it as a single novel. The first book can be found on the first 300 pages and, honestly, I wanted to ditch it too many times to count. In it we are introduced to one of the most irritating voices (from my POV) in literature, sixteen year old Nao (Now) Yasutani. She simply did not engage me in any way. I know she is meant to be a typical teenager but she was over the top and unappealing. We meet her via her diary which has washed up on the shores of an island around British Columbia, and which she has addressed to you, the reader, wherever or whenever you may be reading it. It’s all based on the Zen idea of ”time being,” and Ozeki also throws in quantum mechanics and Schrodinger’s cat even makes an appearance. Like Ruth, I don’t think I’m smart enough for this book or the five appendixes at the back.
The diary is found by Ruth, a writer who lives on the island (when she isn’t living in NYC) with her husband Oliver. (Hmmm, is this an autobiographical novel? Ozeki’s husband is named Oliver and they split their time in NY and BC in the same way. Well, not important so…) They assume the diary, which was contained in an Hello, Kitty lunchbox, was part of the detritus from the 2011 earthquake/tsunami that has started showing up on the Pacific coast of North America. Chapters alternate between Nao’s diary, which Ruth is reading and Ruth’s analysis, with Oliver’s help, of what she’s read. I found the chapters that told about Ruth to be somewhat more engaging. Nao’s family was living in California when the tech bubble burst and her father lost his job. The family returned to Tokyo where he can’t find a job because of Japan’s economic downturn, and where Nao is bullied horribly by her classmates. They are both, unbeknownst to each other, planning to commit suicide.Finally, Nao’s great grandmother Jiko, a 104 year old bald Buddhist priest appears to take her to her cliffside temple for the summer and Nao vows to write her autobiography. The temple is located in Sendai, the area hardest hit by the tsunami and when Ruth reads this she puts two and two together but as she reads further she realizes sometimes two and two doesn’t equal four.
Ozeki finds plenty to preach about and she wastes no time sermonizing on bullying, the environment and Zen Buddhism’s tenets but some of it got tiring as it made up a large portion of the narrative. And when the teacher started taking part in the bullying I threw my hands up in disbelief.
But as I said there are two books here and the last hundred pages proved to be riveting, for the most part and left me mostly glad that I had forged ahead and read the whole book as Ruth seeks to solve the mystery of whether Nao survived the tsunami or not and whether it would be possible to actually find her. Interestingly, professional reviewers seem to pretty much love the book but LT reviews are fairly harsh. I would recommend it with a caution that it’s a big investment of time, which happens to be what the book is about.
The next chapter is written in third person, and now we are hearing about Ruth (the author of this book) and her beach find in Vancouver, which is a Hello Kitty lunch box containing a watch, some letters and a diary. And this is none other than the diary we got a glimpse of in the first chapter. Ruth’s husband assumes that this beach find is the beginning of a wave of flotsam that will arrive on the North American coast after being tossed out to sea during the Tohoku tsunami.
The book continues with these two alternating stories, which sets up a rhythmic motion like waves on a shore, going back and forth between Ruth’s life with her husband in Vancouver and Nao’s story, which is now annotated by Ruth in order to translate Japanese references and phrases, as well as to insert her own thoughts.
Nao’s diary is written in a modified book, which was originally Marcel Proust’s “La Recherche du Temps Perdu.” Ruth’s part of the story is the author’s own story about her writer’s block, about recovering the past in order to write a book about dealing with her mother’s Alzheimer’s, which, of course, is a disease that causes one to forget the past slowly but surely. So we have a book about lost time: lost time recovered and time lost forever. In one chapter we are reminded that Nao is pronounced like “now,” the point where the past is being brought forward in remembrance.
Nao’s family has suffered a disruption. They had been living in California where Nao’s father was a gifted computer programmer, and Nao was well liked at School. After Nao’s father was laid off from his job, the family returns to Tokyo where Nao’s father has become a recluse who thinks only of suicide, and Nao is bullied at school. During a summer vacation at her grandmother’s temple near the Sendai region of Japan, Nao learns about her uncle Haruki who was a pilot in World War II.
As Ruth reads Nao’s story she becomes concerned for the welfare of her and her family and tries to do some research online so that she might somehow save Nao and her father. However, Ruth is so totally in the present of Nao’s story that she doesn’t realize, until her husband points it out to her, that Nao by this time would be in her 20s.
Time is always the strong thread running through the narrative, and time continues to play tricks. Ruth and her husband get into a discussion about quantum physics and how there may be various Ruths and various Naos living simultaneous lives in parallel worlds. Unless the reader is fascinated by quantum theories, this could distract a bit from an otherwise intriguing story.
What was strangely “quantum” for me was that, as much as I love Ruth Ozeki’s writing, I was dealing with my own time issue, and a long pause ensued between my starting the book and finishing it. For a time I “lost” the book and had to find it again. When I finally got it back, I was putting it down and letting other books get in the way. So it was interesting when I read the part in the book where Ruth herself was reading Nao’s diary at a snail’s pace and getting distracted by other things. At one point she “lost” the final pages of the diary, but then they reappeared.
This book is totally different from Ruth Ozeki’s other books, and I think it is a work of genius.
It was too much of a jumble for me, moving from the wrenching travails of a teenage misfit in Japan, through some basics of zen practices, to a taste of quantum mechanics and even to deus ex machina involving dreams and a crow.
I also found the tone a little grating: the author was never condescending but she obviously intended this entire book to instruct. Either the eponymous author or her husband would just explain concepts to us, in a friendly lecture, or the Japanese teenager would do so to her reader. And while I liked the frame of having a package washing up on an island in British Columbia, the Canadian half of the story felt stilted and less interesting.
But it's well-written, and it's certainly sincerely meant. I am sure many will enjoy it. I only regret that, to me, the excellent Japanese material deserved better. I am sure that she will get there in future books.
Which is not to imply that I didn’t enjoy the novel. On the contrary, I found much of this tale engrossing and beguiling. I dare you not to ache for poor Nao, whose tale of trying to navigate a Japanese adolescence ruled by ruthless competition, savage bullying and weird fetishes is so awful, it makes you feel like American schools and culture may be doing something right after all. Or for her poor father, plunged into a life of poverty, shame, and degradation by a capitalist society with no room for ethics and a culture with no tolerance for non-conformity. Or her father’s uncle, an earnest university student dragged away from his studies during the final days of WW2 to be sacrificed as a Kamakazi pilot on the alter of patriotic pride by his country’s sadistic rulers.
In contrast, Ruth’s story is a lot less dramatic –she’s recently lost her mother, she misses living in NYC, she’s got an epic case of writer’s block, she lives on a lush but isolated island with a bunch of “characters,” one of whom is her husband, an auto-didact, neauveau-hippie preoccupied with environmental issue. Because of this, the novel for me felt a little lop-sided – the chapters dedicated to Ruth’s life coming off as rather pale and self-indulgent in comparison to the emotionally rich chapters dedicated to Nao’s narrative.
As I’ve said, however, my problem with this story isn’t that it lacks either heart or good storytelling. Rather, it’s the author’s approach to magical realism that throws me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Marquez, Chabon and other artists of the craft, it’s that magical realism works best when you don’t try to explain it. Ozeki, on the other hand, buries us with possible explanations, everything from Zen philosophy to quantum physics, Proustian metaphysics and ancestor worship. I think the juxtaposition is meant to highlight common themes, but I’m not sure that the explication required to drag these elements into the story (especially the final chapters) doesn’t detract rather than add to the novel’s overarching theme, which seem to be that time may be fluid, but love, sacrifice and loss are eternal.
From Quantum mechanics to the flotsam and jetsam that make up the tidal pool from the Japanese Tsunami, now washing upon United States shorelines on the west coast. The difference in the makeup of a human being and the hope that in time we will learn to celebrate that difference instead of making this an object of fun. Brutal and harshness set against peace and compassion. There is so much in this novel, it was rather brilliant and I am very glad that this is one I chose to read.
With that definition on the first page and the fact that A Tale for the Time Being ends with six appendices (on subjects as diverse as quantum physics, Schrodinger's cat, Japanese temple names, and Zen Buddhism) as well as a bibliography and a glossary of Japanese phrases, it's clear from the start that this is a book which takes itself seriously, one where the reader is expected to do some work. And this worked for me at the start of the book, but as I read more and more I got the feeling that perhaps the author was trying a little too hard?
Ruth, an American writer of Japanese descent, is walking along the beach near her home on a remote island in British Columbia, when she discovers a well-wrapped package containing the diary of Nao(ko) Yasutani, a Japanese teenager living in Tokyo, as well as other letters. As Ruth reads the diary she becomes more and more concerned about Nao's fate, not only because she assumes that the diary has been swept into the sea by the 2011 tsunami, but also because the diary reveals that Nao plans to commit suicide. Brought up in Silicon Valley, she is facing severe bullying in her new school in Tokyo, where her parents have returned to live after her father lost his job. And so the story continues, alternating between Ruth's life with her husband, a life which to someone from New York City seems sometimes to belong to someone else, and Nao's story in Tokyo. And as Nao tells her own story she also tells the story of her great-grandmother, still alive and well at the age of 104, who was an early feminist and writer in pre-war Japan, and then became a nun after the death of her son in a kamikaze mission in World War II.
When the two strands of the narrative remained separate I had my hopes for this book, but as they begin to come together in the second half I was left with a growing feeling of disatisfaction. The book did not gel into the harmonious whole that I had hoped: rather as the mixture of ideas within the book seemed to be more and more disconnected from each other. So in the end a book with some excellent ideas, but whose execution, for me at any rate, does not wrap them into a coherent whole.
In subject matter, though not in characterization or overall aim, A Tale for the Time Being reminds me heavily of Jonathan Safran Foer's remarkable book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Both follow story lines in the past and the present, as a main character searches through the history of their ancestors to find meaning in life after tragedy. Both draw lines between WWII and 9-11. Both feature odd protagonists, though they are strange in entirely different ways. Ozeki does very different things with these elements, but the similarities are fascinating, and I would recommend A Tale for the Time Being to Foer fans.
The opening pages of Ozeki's tale captured me immediately. A Tale for the Time Being opens with Nao, a sixteen-year-old girl living in Tokyo. Though born in Japan, she feels American, having spent much of her childhood overseas in Sunnyvale, California, where her father was working. When he lost his job in the bursting of the Dot-com bubble, they moved back to Japan. Nao hates it there. Her father still hasn't found work, instead descending first into gambling and then becoming an agoraphobic determined to commit suicide. Nao suffers from the change to the Japanese school system as well, since she's behind academically and horribly bullied by her classmates. At the time she begins her story, she's a drop-out, a ronin, studying to take the exams to get into high school again.
What I loved about the opening, though, is how authentic and real Nao feels. She's been through so much darkness at that point, is herself intent on suicide, but there's something fresh, young, and vibrant about her narration. My favorite parts of Nao's story are always those where she loses her train of thought and goes off on a rambling tangent. Her story itself is very sad, but her tangents are where you really get a look at the real Nao and how her mind works. She's darkly funny and I was desperately hoping for her story to come to a happy ending.
Nao's story takes place within another story, Ruth's. Ruth is half-Japanese and living in a remote Canadian city with her husband, Oliver. An urbanite, Ruth does not love her life there. She hates the way the power is constantly out from the storms and she's been struggling to get any writing done, cut off from her inspiration. Out on the beach, she finds a plastic bag and plans to throw it away, afraid of what might be inside. Oliver opens the bag, and inside finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox, within which are letters in old-fashioned Japanese, a diary in French, and a copy of Proust with a school girl's writing inside, mostly in English.
Ruth's story is both a mystery, as she searches for the ending to Nao's story, and self-discovery. As she reads, Ruth also researches, trying to find evidence that this diary is in fact a true thing. She gets the diaries and letters translated and the story slowly unfolds around her, becoming more present to her than her actual life. There's an almost magical realism sort of feel to Ruth's portion of the narrative, as though there's an actual mystical connection between writer and reader, allowing Ruth to influence the story despite the distance and time between them, though everything else is couched firmly in the real, non-magical world.
Within Nao's story, there are others, as she learns about her grandmother, her uncle and her father. Ozeki's got a huge focus on family and on the importance of life. She also delves into powerful philosophical themes, like the purpose of existence and Schrödinger's cat. The title, for example, is a lovely play on words, making use of two meanings, both a tale for the moment and a tale for beings that live in time. That phrase pops up at many points in the narrative and is crucial to Ozeki's overarching themes.
Unfortunately, I don't really feel like I got this. I think I'm partway there, but I most certainly do not have everything all figured out, which I don't think you're supposed to necessarily, but I should be a bit further along. Part of my problem is that I didn't have any clue where the story was going, having falsely believed Nao's assertion that it would be a story about her grandmother, but Nao is not a reliable storyteller, which had already been established, so silly me. As such, I allowed myself to get bored in sections that didn't seem important to me, because I had a predefined idea of where I thought the story was going. My expectations kept me from paying as much attention as I should have and from picking up all of the threads needed to weave the story into a cohesive, meaningful whole in my head. I put the fact that I didn't enjoy this more solely on my own head.
All I can leave you with is that, though this novel didn't get an absurdly high rating from me in the end, it's one I will be keeping in my personal collection. These days, I have so many books I tend to give them away once I finish, except the ones in the 4-5 range, and a lot of the 4s I pass on as well. I think A Tale for the Time Being is one of those odd books that I will have a much greater appreciation for on a reread, because I'll have a better idea of what to expect and be able to appreciate more the intricate weaving of Ozeki's story.
I was much more interested in Nao's story than in Ruth's, and became impatient when reading through Ruth's part of the story. The novel totally lost me however, when it veered into the supernatural and metaphysical, as Ruth's dreams began directing the course the events depicted in Nao's diary took.
I was dubious about this book, and it caught me on the first page. It's inviting, and thoughtful, and charming. It's so much about voice -- two voices -- that it doesn't really matter what the plot is: it's about so much more than that. I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, and the book had its own voice, too. One I wanted to keep listening to, and mourned when it was over. I'm going to read it again, on paper, because it's my friend, and I don't want it to stop speaking.
So, here goes my hand-waving: this book is about death, and loss, and time. It's about alienation -- like all capital-l Literature! -- but also about connection. It's about Zen Buddhism, and crows, and language. It's my favorite novel I read in 2017, and I read some great books. If you're not sure you're up for all that, give it a try. It might just catch you, on the very first page.
The plot seems simple. Nao Yasutani is a 16-year-old living in Tokyo in the early years of the twenty-first century. In a diary she is writing, she describes herself as a “time being” who has decided she is “going to drop out of time.” Before she commits suicide, however, she wants to write the life story of her great-grandmother, Yasutani Jiko, a Buddhist nun who was also a “novelist and New Woman of the Taisho era . . . an anarchist and a feminist.” Although we do meet Jiko and learn a bit about her, it is not her life story but Nao’s which fills the pages of the diary.
About a decade later, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan, on a remote island on British Columbia’s coast, Ruth discovers Nao’s diary, along with some other artifacts, inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Ruth, the novelist, becomes Nao’s reader. Ruth also becomes a detective of sorts as she tries to find out how the lunchbox found its way to her and what happened to Nao and her family.
That the book is a meditation on time is obvious from the beginning. The book’s title and the opening definition of a “time being” as “someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be” are the first clues. That Nao’s diary has the cover of Marcel Proust’s "À la recherche du temps perdu" is no coincidence. Included are quotes from an ancient Buddhist master: “Time itself is being . . . and all being is time . . . In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.”
As suggested by the above quotation, the interconnectedness of life is another major theme. For example, the book explores the connections between writer and reader. Nao claims that she and her reader together will “make magic” and Ruth eventually wonders whether Nao conjured Ruth into being.
The connections between past and present are also examined. Nao discusses the difficulties of writing about the past: “Maybe that Nao of the past never really existed, except in the imagination of this Nao of the present. . . . the problem of trying to write about the past really starts in the present: No matter how fast you write, you’re always stuck in the then and you can never catch up to what’s happening now, which means that now is pretty much doomed to extinction.”
This is a complex metaphysical novel. Its references range from thirteenth-century Buddhist writings to quantum mechanics. The depth and breadth of the book should not, however, discourage potential readers. It is very readable. Anyone who watches The Big Bang Theory will be able to follow the discussions of quantum physics and the experiment involving Schrodinger’s cat!
Besides being able to explain some rather esoteric subjects, the author also has the ability to develop believable and likeable characters. Both Nao and Ruth become characters the reader will care about; both are developed so intricately that there is never any doubt that their behaviour is motivated and consistent with their personalities. I wondered whether I would find anything relatable in the diary of a suicidal teenager, but from the beginning I found myself drawn to this adolescent; I became as fascinated as Ruth is as she reads the diary.
This novel is very difficult to disentangle. The author briefly discusses “the interconnectedness of entanglement,” a principle of quantum mechanics, and her novel illustrates entanglement or intertwinement in that all elements work together to create a complex whole. Not one word or image is out of place; all contribute to the total meaning. The difficulty the reader or reviewer faces is doing justice to the book while discussing its separate elements.
This book is a must-read and will probably become a must-re-read for many. It is intelligent without being incomprehensible. It has everything: an interesting plot, credible and appealing characters, and thoroughly developed themes.
Note: I received a pre-release copy of this book from the publisher via netgalley.com
That's a very dry summary of this book. But rest assured, the book is not dry at all. It also includes, for instance, the teen's great-grandmother, who was a pre-World War II anarchist, feminist, and novelist, and who after the war become a Zen Buddhist nun. The teen's uncle, a kamakaze pilot, through his diaries (and a ghost?) also makes an appearance.
I loved the voice of the teen. It sounded just right. There's a breeziness to it. But there's thoughtfulness, too. After all, she is an outsider, having been raised in the States and only brought back to live in Japan once her family becomes ruined by the bursting dot-com bubble. She is bullied, she has father who has attempted suicide, and she contemplates suicide hereself.
But then she has that great-grandmother of hers. And an unknown friend across the Pacific reading her diary who also cares for her and who will have an effect on her life in a way neither of them will fully understand.
Great story. Great characters. Recommended.
The signs of this kind of writing appear on every page: brief sections, which often end in cliffhangers like "But it was too late" or "Maybe I shouldn't have said anything"; descriptions that are just long enough to set a scene, as in a screenplay; grammatically simple sentences and dialogue; gestures to make sure the reader doesn't feel alienated ("I googled Marcel Proust and learned that A la recherche du temps perdu means 'In Search of lost time.' Weird, right?"). If a reader pauses to re-read a page, it's going to be because something amazing or heartbreaking or sentimental has happened, not because the description and the language were arresting.
This condition of writing, in which the language is used to tell the story, is very common. It accounts for a large percentage of popular novels, and it is compatible with the current focus on identity, gender, race, political reporting, and memoir: if your interest as a novelist is telling your readers about the place you come from, your culture, or your identity, then your language should probably work as fluidly and unobtrusively as possible. Devices like footnotes and Appendices, both of which are used in Ozeki's book (she provides primers on Japanese terms, and on Schroedinger's cat), are ways of increasing the sense of reality or veracity: the exact opposite of their function in books like "Pale Fire" or "Infinite Jest."
It's true that no novel is only about its writing, even though some, like William Gass's, put on a show of being about language. In the same way no novel is only about its subject. (There are several beautifully written passages in this book, like one on the body of a 104-year-old woman.)
But Ozeki projects a sense of herself as a writer who wants to tell a story about life, time, Zen practices, and Japanese culture, and it seems she could do it in different media -- film, for example. I am only interested in novels that need to be written because language is at issue, and not only in footnotes explaining Japanese terms. (I am also unpersuaded by her concerns, which are the subjects of many of the other 6,000 reviews on Goodreads! I'm not interested in her take on Zen, or her philosophy of time or culture, and I find her characterizations simple and sentimental.)
A good book may not try to be about anything at all: the author may not be trying to tell me about her life, her country, or her beliefs. That doesn't mean it a novel can't be about all those things: it means the "model author," as Eco called it, the one implied by the text, is mainly concerned with the struggle to represent thought.
I know that by posting this here, I'm apt to get some negative responses: I hope not. I'm reading very widely this spring (2016), in preparation for the AWP conference in Los Angeles. These comments are notes on my sense of some contemporary currents in popular fiction.
A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliant novel in that way that books can sometime be brilliant. It's the sort of novel that you'll probably feel strongly about from the beginning, or be completely indifferent to. But what else is there? Perhaps, as Jiko would say, they are “same thing.” It's a complex book that seems fairly straightforward until it gets closer and closer to the end. It's the sort of book where everyone is a philosopher (EVERYONE!), everyone has a wondrous story to tell, yet everyone is so prosaic.
A Tale for the Time Being might be a paradox; or it could just be a book. Not just any book, but a complex metafictional book that Booker types eat up. Now, I am one of those Booker types. I love that prize. Every other literary prize gets it wrong, but the judges at Booker—they're my homies. And yet, I couldn't connect with this novel. Aside from Haruki #1, a character only in the sense of found correspondence, I was unable to connect with the characters. Too many philosophers amongst them. And Nao. Nao was part-philosopher, part-fangirl with a fascinating story and no voice to tell it in. At least not the right voice, I felt.
Perhaps this novel is an example of a good idea getting in the way of a good story. There was considerable potential here, and those willing to work at it, those able to identify with one character or another, they'll probably love this tale. Give it a hundred pages. If you enjoy the characters, press on. If you love multi-layered fiction worthy of dissection, press on. But if you've made it that far and haven't fallen in love, you probably won't. Whether you read all 432 pages, or just make it through the first chapter, it doesn't matter; they're “same thing” to the philosophers and time beings found in this novel.
I delighted in this novel, the audio book of which is read by the author herself, who does a wonderful reading. The novel is told from two points of view — Ruth, a writer on a remote island who finds a mysterious packet in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, containing a journal and letters and other items, and Nao, living in Tokyo, whose story is told through the journal itself.
There are so many layers to my love of this novel. The characters and their stories captivated me. Nao, who has faced such levels of bullying at school and sorrow at home, relates her decision to end her life in a straightforward manner. To her it is the only logical solution to what she's been through (and she's been through a lot). In her journal, she presents her life with a sense of self-depreciating humor. After all she's been through, and despite her resolution, there is an underlying strength to her. It's an interesting balance between depression, sorrow, and enjoyment of small moments.
Ruth is also fascinating to me. Her life is marked by less overt drama, and her story relates more of the small moments, the routines of her life that both provide her with contentment and feel like traps. As she explore's Nao's story through the journal and tries to seek a way to help this girl who lives across the sea, she finds certain threads of her own life loosening, creating their own minor havocs.
This novel is also meta, with multiple meanins available from different aspects of the story. One could start with the writer character, Ruth, who shares her name with the author of the book, which suggests the potential of the autobiographical slipping in even if none of it actually is such. Even the title A Tale for the Time Being has double meaning — as in both, a tale for a person who lives in time, and also a tale for right now. I don't want to get too much into the ways this is a meta narrative, since a lot of it comes at the end, but I will say that it had me thinking about the creation of art and degree to which the reader participates in the creation.
I think this is one of those books I'm going to have to reread from time to time, and I'm especially interested in reading the book on the page for the different experience from audio book (for example, "Nao" and "now" sound the same when they're read aloud, creating an interesting interchangeability to the meaning, which I wouldn't have gotten right away if I had read it in print first).
Nao's diary has washed up on an island in the Pacific Northwest, carefully wrapped in a Hello Kitty lunchbox with some letters, a watch, and other papers. Ruth, married to Oliver and trying to adjust to living in the wild isolation of the island, wonders if Nao's diary is flotsam from the tsunami of 2011, a little time capsule of a young girl's life. Ruth quickly becomes obsessed with Nao's very present-sounding life: the brutal bullying she endures, her father's misery over not finding a job, her mother's urgent need for Nao to be okay when Nao is very obviously not okay.
Ruth Ozeki (who ALSO is married to a man named Oliver and also lives on an island) does a fantastic job of luring her reader into both Nao and Ruth's lives, of making every moment so present and powerful that I found myself unable to read at any pace but the pace Ozeki dictated - racing ahead as Nao hurtles toward disaster, slowing down as Ruth struggles to make sense of what she is reading. This is a book to savor, and think about, and think about some more. I will be re-reading.
I didn't love the ending. The quantum stuff seemed unnecessary and didn't fit with the rest of the novel and it was ridiculous to have Oliver "lecture on it" to the reader. But at least Nao's story had a satisfactory ending. Overall a great read.
This foundation also provides an emotional and moral center to the tales of three women, what they believe and the love they feel that is grounded in their beliefs. Throw in quantum physics, Schrodinger’s cat and folklore about crows, and the result is a heavyweight novel that is easy to absorb and worthy of contemplation.
Ruth is the present-day narrator who shares with her author creator being a writer and a Buddhist priest living in British Columbia. The fictional Ruth and her husband live in a small village on a sound, where the ocean waves still manage to deliver a package. It at first appears to be a copy of the Proust novel À la recherche du temps perdu saved in plastic.
It is instead a journal remade with the novel’s cover, a journal written by a teenage girl in Japan around the turn of the 21st century. Nao was raised in Silicon Valley when her father went to work there, but the bursting of the dot com bubble sent the family back to Japan. She is the epitome of a stranger living in a strange land. She isn’t fluent in Japanese. She’s behind in school. And she is bullied. The bullying is relentless and harrowing. Her classmates even hold a fake funeral for her and put it on the internet.
Without consulting her, her parents decide to send her for the summer break to her great-grandmother Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun in a remote mountain location. This nun is the kind of fictional character who should exist in real life. She’s a spiritual Auntie Mame who helped form some of Nao’s father’s best memories as a boy and is showing, not telling, her great-granddaughter the power of zazen, a method of meditation. She also hopes Nao develops a superpower.
Ruth could use the power of meditation. She’s been trying to write a memoir of her mother, who died several years ago after suffering from Alzheimer’s, but has been stalled for ages. As a writer, she knows this is not healthy:
An unfinished book, left unattended, turns feral, and she would need all her focus, will, and ruthless determination to tame it again.
Instead of her own work, Ruth is captivated by Nao and worries about her, even though the journal was written years ago. It may have reached Canada in the vanguard of debris drifting over after the tsunami and Fuskushima disaster, which is ongoing.
Ruth doesn’t even know if Nao is still alive. She not only wrote about killing herself, her father is sinking into depression ever more deeply because he cannot find work after they return to Japan. He isn’t even successful at killing himself. He does roam the streets at night, and sometimes Nao follows him. These sections are highly reminiscent of Murakami’s writing, especially in 1Q84 during night sessions involving a playground swing in the middle of a metropolis. Ruth also is having a hard time finding evidence online that Nao is real.
Meanwhile, Nao plans to write a biography of Jiko but like Ruth, she gets off-track and the work is not done. Jiko admires early Japanese feminists, and may or may not have written an “I-novel”, an early form of Japanese confessional fiction. Is this what Nao’s journal is? She is deliberately reaching out to someone who will one day read what she has written:
Maybe when I ask you a question like “You doing okay?” you should just tell me, even if I can’t hear you, and then I’ll just sit here and imagine what you might say. You might say, “Sure thing, Nao. I’m okay. I’m doin’ just fine.”
Is she practicing I-fiction or trying to find someone, anyone, since her new life is so desolate?
While Nao’s father is trying to commit suicide, the reader also learns about Jiko’s son. He was a kamikaze pilot during World War II. But he also was a scholar, a lover of French literature and poetry. Writings of his also surface.
Perhaps it is inevitable, but there is an element of the fantastical toward the end of the novel before Ozeki brings everything back together. I can’t say much without going into spoilers but again, it felt like wandering into Murakami territory and it felt right.
Ozeki weaves in ideas about bullies, both personal and corporate, sustainability, old growth and how to live at peace in the multiple POV narrative that doesn’t feel forced. There is ultimately a calmness that the writing delivers, and it has to do with realizing how connected we all are.
The story of Ruth, who lives on one of the Gulf Islands off the coast of BC, and who discovers a diary and other documents carefully packaged up in plastic bags on the beach. The diary is written by a Japanese girl and Ruth wonders if it has made its way across the ocean in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, although the dates don't quite fit. Ruth reads the diary slowly and learns about Nao, the 15 year old writer, who has returned to Japan after 10 years in California and is failing to fit in and about her depressed father, who has also failed to make a success of his life back home. Nao has a 104 year old great-grandmother, Jiko, who is a Buddhist nun, and Nao claims that the diary will tell Jiko's life story. (It does not really).
I disliked almost everything about this book, although in many ways these were personal preferences and I can comprehend that other people might find it excellent. I disliked Ruth, who was very dismissive of Oliver, despite having initially been attracted to him for his values. I disliked Nao, who was annoyingly immature (i.e. probably well written, but I avoid young adult fiction as I find teenagers so immature). I disliked everything I learned about Japan and its culture. I was bored by the musings on environmental issues (again, doubtless a failing in me).
I found the end especially problematic: what was going on? Other people's dreams are very boring to have to read and hear about. I dislike magical realism. Or was it meant to be First Nations mythology? Or Buddhist mysticism (is that even a thing?) There was the crow and the who is narrating this: the reader or the writer? By then I just wanted it to be over.
Long, long narrative from 2 POVs: Nao, a Japanese teenager recording in her diary and Ruth, the author who finds Nao's diary washed up ashore in British Columbia. I listened to the author read the novel for 2 weeks, then finished the hard copy on my own. I have mixed feelings about A Tale for the Time Being: had I read it instead of listening, I would have been able to skip the repetitive bits. But would I have finished it? Don't know. I didn't skip any of the audiobook but feel that I could have without losing track of the story. It was helpful to hear the Japanese spoken.
Nao's diary could have been a novel in itself, a real teenager's take on moving from California to Japan when her father loses his job. Her low status at school inevitably makes her an ideal victim of peer harassment and cruelty. She describes a summer spent with her 104 year old grandmother at a Buddhist shrine: sitting zazen, preparing meals together, bathing together. Some beautiful conversations about perception and reality unfold here. Gritty and philosophical, questioning and judging, Nao's diary allows the western reader to view teenaged society in modern day Japan.
Ruth and Oliver's island life is interesting too, especially if the reader is interested in BC flora and fauna. Ms Ozeki endows Oliver with a somewhat pedantic bent; the "joke" being that "Oliver" is the name of the author's husband. Their story, too, could have been its own book. Maybe I am missing the point?
Helpful appendices wait at the end of the book for those readers who need more information about topics such as quantum physics, Schrodinger's cat and parallel universes. Not your summer beach read!
7 out of 10 For readers who enjoy philosophy, nature, conservationism, Japanese culture and the properties of time.