I’ve been hearing rave reviews of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki ever since its release in 2013, including being short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. I’ve wanted to read it since and finally found some extra motivation when my library chose it for its May book discussion (which I sometimes go to when I can fit it in). I missed the discussion (no surprise) but finally got to read this unique novel and find out what all the fuss was about. I loved this story about connections between a teen girl in Japan and a woman writer in British Columbia.
Nao is a teenage girl sitting in a Japanese French Maid Café (this is seriously a real thing, much to my amazement), writing in a journal. She and her parents are all pretty miserable, and her father is suicidal. They used to live in Sunnyvale, California, where her father had a job with a growing tech company, so Nao grew up mostly American. When the dot-com bubble burst and her father lost his job, the family had to return to Japan. Not able to find a job there either, he is depressed and suicidal, and the family lives in a tiny 2-room apartment in a run-down part of Tokyo. Nao’s classmates bully her relentlessly – and cruelly – for being the new girl and an outsider.
On the other side of the world, Ruth, a second-generation Japanese American woman and a writer, is walking along the beach on the small island in British Columbia where she lives with her husband, Oliver. She finds a curious item washed ashore and encased in several layers of plastic bags and a Hello Kitty lunchbox. When she takes it home and opens it, she finds Nao’s journal. She begins to read it aloud, with Oliver listening, and they are both immediately entranced by Nao’s story and her plights.
The novel continues back and forth, with alternating chapters between Nao and Ruth. Nao doesn’t know to whom she is writing, but she hopes that someone will someday read it. Her chapters are wholly from the journal, so the reader is experiencing Nao’s story in exactly the way that Ruth is experiencing it. As she reads, Ruth becomes more and more concerned about Nao. With her father’s failed suicide attempts and her own ever-escalating bullying, Nao is considering suicide herself. Ruth is alarmed and wants to somehow find her, but Oliver points out that they have no way of knowing when this journal was written or how much time has passed since.
The one saving grace in Nao’s life is her great-grandmother, Jiko, who is 104 and a Buddhist nun. In her youth, Jiko was a revolutionary, an anarchist and a feminist (at a time when both were rare and dangerous). In fact, Nao starts the journal with a plan to write Jiko’s life story in it. She spends a summer at the tiny Buddhist temple on top of a mountainside where Jiko lives and gets to know her great-grandmother. That summer changes her life.
I enjoyed the complex connections and back-and-forth style of this wholly unique novel. Because of Jiko’s influence, there is quite a bit of Buddhism included in Nao’s journal (and further explained in appendices). In fact, the title of the book comes from the writings of a Zen Master from the 1200’s. I loved the bits of philosophy worked in among Nao’s and Ruth’s stories (man and nature is also an ongoing theme here) and especially the way that their two stories intertwined. A Tale for the Time Being is a moving, powerful story about life and time, peopled by interesting characters, that makes you think. What more could you want from a novel?
403 pages (plus appendices), Viking Press
[If you haven’t yet joined the Big Book Challenge, this would be a great book to read for it!]