Review: A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki
Wandering on the beach near her home on a remote island in the Desolation Sound, British Columbia, Japanese-American novelist Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up in the sand. Inside she discovers some old letters, a watch and a diary written in Japanese. Curious, Ruth begins to read, and is quickly absorbed by the story of Japanese teenager Nao.
Convinced that the items were swept out to sea in the wake of the Japanese tsunami, Ruth becomes obsessed with learning what happened to Nao and her family.
A Tale for the Time Being is one of the best novels I have read for some time. Ruth Ozeki has constructed an intelligent and thoughtful narrative, full of bizarre parallels and magic realist quirks that would be at home within the pages of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s books.
The story alternates between the two women; as Ruth reads Nao’s diary we also witness her own struggle to write her next book and continue with life in her isolated home. The more Ruth reads of Nao’s life, the more bizarre the narrative becomes, as she begins to question her own perception.
The voice of Nao, in particular, is enthralling. The girl has a unique outlook and personality that jumps off the page, creating a vivid, living character. Nao has a lot in common with Ruth, so much so that as the story progressed I began to wonder if some strange twist of the timeline might result in the two women being revealed as one and the same.
Nao grew up with her parents in Sunnyvale, California, after her father was head-hunted by a tech company during the dot.com boom. When he lost his job, the family are forced to relocate back to Tokyo, where they struggle to get by. Unable to find work, Nao’s father, Haruki, sinks into a depression and attempts to commit suicide several times. More American than Japanese, Nao is viciously bullied at school, culminating in a horrendous incident in the girls’ toilets, which results in her being publicly shamed on the internet.
It is when Nao meets her great-grandmother, 104 year-old Buddhist nun, Jiko, that she begins to learn about her family history, including the story of her grandfather, Haruki #1, a kamikaze pilot during World War Two who studied French poetry. Through Haruki #1’s letters and wartime diary, Nao begins to find her own purpose and reconnect with her father.
Although Nao experiences some awful bullying and is witness to her father’s spiral towards suicide, her voice always keeps the story from becoming depressing. Instead there is often humour within moments of great pathos; Nao’s relationship with both her father and her great-grandmother are incredibly touching. Both father and daughter are profoundly damaged and have a deep understanding of the other’s pain, committing small actions and omissions to help the other, yet never openly acknowledging the trauma they are experiencing.
Although the Japanese tsunami is the hook that initially draws the reader in, this story is not about that event or its aftermath. This is a tale about time, philosophy, religion, knowledge and spirit that has an epic heart and hundreds of curious story threads weaving together to create a masterful piece of fiction. I could write endlessly about the themes and motifs, but it is enough to say that it is a witty, clever and profoundly moving novel that you must read.
Please note: I received an advance copy of this book as part of the Amazon Vine programme, however opinions are my own.