A Tale for the Time Being
By: Ruth Ozeki
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
“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.
This book has been on my radar a little bit before its release in hardback. I’ve watched as it garnered a lot of praise, ultimately being nominated for a number of book awards including the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2013. So I’ve been keeping an eye on it; finally I was in Book City recently with my best friend and the paperback was there, and I decided to pick it up =P
May contain some minor spoilers ahead! Also, this review is a bit on the long side (I think)–too many thoughts/feels 😉
I’m going to say this right now: this book is not for everyone. This book can get pretty dark and disturbing with a lot of bad stuff happening: extreme bullying, attempted rape, depression, suicide, prostitution. If you’re not comfortable reading about these themes, best not read this book because while there are also some really great aspects about this book (as I will mention shortly) and I did rate it quite highly, some of the characters go through hell and it can get pretty bad.
So, if you’re still with me, great! A Tale for the Time Being was a really interesting read; the reader is very much in Ruth (the character)’s position in that we are unravelling Nao’s story via a diary that washed up on her shore. Nao’s voice rings true through her diary entries; you really get a sense of the character complete with the teenage insecurities and perspectives on the world. It can be a bit infuriating sometimes with the way she treats some of the people around her, but she’s going through a lot so you can’t fault her for it, and everything she feels is just raw and genuine; as her great-grandmother mentions at one point, she has a lot of anger in her. It makes her a fully-realised character.
Ruth, the character from the other end of the spectrum/story who is reading Nao’s story, is a little more muted as a character. In many ways, our understanding of her character–and of her husband, Oliver–is through elements of Nao’s story, like when Nao mentioned 9/11, or spoke about the Japanese landscape. Ruth’s story and past, from her mother’s illness to her husband’s work and her own work, is more fragmented and presented in a non-linear fashion. It’s best to follow through Nao’s story as an outline to understand how Ruth’s story falls in place. But I didn’t really get a sense of Ruth’s character beyond her investigation into Nao and her writing. The reader gets a sense of what her life is like and what her relationships are like but something seems missing, hence I found myself more invested in Nao’s story.
The narrative is wonderful, there’s a lot of gorgeous sentences throughout and lots of food for thought. I enjoyed the references and exploration of Japanese culture and the use of the language throughout. It’s interesting but also a little difficult to understand with the sort of Japanese aestheticism that shrouds over Nao’s story, the particular Eastern thought/philosophy/approach to life and existence. I enjoyed the part of the novel when Nao was spending her summer with her great-grandmother at the temple and learning their philosophy and way of life there. There’s a peace and beauty to it that was calming and uplifting to read.
It’s a stark contrast to a lot of the darkness that Nao and her father faces in their everyday life; you can see why their experiences has led them to behave and approach life in a particular manner and yet at the same time it’s rather disturbing too; the sub-culture on suicide in particular is especially bleak to read about. Roll that in with her father’s depression and Nao’s anger; sometimes it seems as though Nao is perpetuating these very depressing ideas, almost cajoling her father to the edge and making it hard for the reader to sympathise with her (i.e. without going into detail, her opinion of her father’s “failure”). This darkness contrasted with the elegant beauty of Jiko’s Buddhist calm makes for a very strange balance between the violence and the introspective.
If this book wasn’t full of ideas and experiences as it is, the novel is also part historical fiction, looking at letters and diary entries made by Jiko’s son Haruki who was drafted towards the end of the World War Two. Again, the contrast is stark as Haruki experiences great violence during his military training while in his letters he makes constant references to philosophy, great reflection and the ethnical dilemmas that stand before him. Like Nao’s story, there’s more than meets the eye, but it was interesting to read about his experiences and how he tries to reconcile himself to the things that are demanded of him from the military.
Overall A Tale for the Time Being is a fascinating read with plenty of ideas crammed into this novel (philosophy, cultural divides, the darker aspects/experiences mentioned above, the art of writing and storytelling, even quantum physics!). It did get a bit meta towards the end as the narratives converged and there’s some abstract thinking going on concerning existence and whose narrative it is that we’re really reading. I thought the extended references to 9/11 and wars that followed could have been been done without as I thought it didn’t really add to the story; it should have just stayed in Nao’s narrative. It was somewhere in Part 3 that my mind was set on giving this book 3 stars; it had been a solid read and difficult to put down once I started but it did get a bit much at one point (the bullying, the depression). But then there was a silver lining, a crack of hope towards the end (in keeping with the story, of course), and so I ended up rating this novel a 4 =P My advice to those planning on picking up this novel is to stick through it; I think it’s worth the read.