Book Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A tale for the Time Being

This is a novel. Fiction. I had to keep reminding myself of that all the way through, as even the dream-like fantasy parts of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki seemed like they could be real. This is the story of two lives, at two different times, which somehow end up crossing paths. First there is Ruth, a Japanese-American (much like the author herself) living on a small island somewhere off the coast of Canada, and then there is Nao Yasutani, a Japanese teenager who left her heart in America when she was forced to move back to her home country after her computer programmer father got fired from his job in Silicon Valley.

Nao’s diary, encased in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washes up on the shore and is found by Ruth. Ruth quickly assumes that it must be debris from the 2011 tsunami in Tohoku, and sets her mind to piecing together the story. Who is Nao Yasutani, and did she survive?

As Ruth desperately searches the Internet for evidence of Nao and her family’s existence, she becomes obsessed with the story, and so did I. This is the kind of book that you think about reading even when you’re not reading it. I would be walking home thinking, “as soon as I get in I have to read a bit more, I have to know what happens next”. And yet, just like Ruth reading Nao’s diary, I didn’t want to read it all too fast, because then it would be over.

As I said, it’s just so real. The characters are modern and wholly believable, and it’s the kind of story you want to believe in. Tsunami debris will wash up in random places, and there might be some messages in bottles floating around out there waiting to be discovered.

The book is cleverly written in alternating sections, starting with Nao sitting in a lonely Maid Cafe in Akihabara, trying to imagine who her reader might be (“Are you sunbathing on a sandy beach in Phuket, or having your toenails buffed in Brighton? Are you a male or a female or somewhere in between?” she ponders). The other sections are from Ruth’s perspective; finding the lunchbox, and trying to solve the mystery contained within. In a way, Nao and Ruth have a lot in common, in that they are both a bit misplaced. Nao doesn’t really fit in in Japan, having spent her childhood in America, and she’s bullied horribly by the kids at her school in Japan (really horribly – making me wonder if such violent bullying actually happens). Ruth left New York behind for this tiny island in British Columbia, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and fog enshrouds both her house and her mind. Somehow Ruth and Nao find each other, across time and across oceans.

Nao is a time being – “someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be“, she says, taking an idea from Zen Buddhism. The novel is scattered with ideas from Buddhism, which is unsurprising when you know that Ozeki is actually an ordained Buddhist priest. Nao’s great-grandmother, old Jiko, is a shaven-headed, feminist, slightly Yoda-like monk living at an old temple in the mountains of Miyagi, Tohoku. Nao sets out to tell old Jiko’s story, but in doing so she ends up writing her own, which is subtly interwoven with that of her great-grandmother’s. There are also ideas taken from philosophy, and even quantum mechanics (the most interesting for me being the ‘many worlds’ idea originally put forth by Hugh Everett).

This 2012 Man Booker Prize-nominated novel by Ruth Ozeki is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time (dare I say, one of the best books I’ve ever read). It’s absolutely packed not only with a compelling story, but also with lashings and lashings of Japanese culture, all helpfully explained with footnotes. No assumptions are made that the reader should know anything about Japanese culture before reading the book, making this a story for everyone (not just Japanophiles). The story is written so vividly that I often felt like I was watching a movie (and oh what a movie it would make in the right hands!).

There are many messages in the story, but the one I shall be taking away with me is this:

Everything in the universe is constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.

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