13 January 2014
A Tale for the Time Being
"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.
Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.
Since I decided to try to read the Tournament of Books finalists, I knew that the first book I would go for was A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. It came up on my radar with the announcement of the Booker Prize finalists and I loved the "voice" when I heard an excerpt read by Ozeki on a Guardian Books podcast. I am kicking myself for not reading it earlier.
A teenage girl in Tokyo, Naoko, begins writing in a diary with the intention of chronicling the life of her great-grandmother. On an island off the coast of British Columbia a novelist and filmmaker, Ruth, finds a freezer bag filled with something washed up on shore. Her curious husband Oliver opens the bag to find a diary, packet of letters, and man's watch carefully packed into a Hello Kitty lunchbox. It is possible that these items were washed out to sea during the 2011 tsunami which had happened only a few weeks prior. Although Ruth tries to avoid it, she becomes drawn into Nao's story - her life in Tokyo now, her life growing up in California, and her family history. The two storylines alternate, running almost parallel, until they converge in a very unexpected way.
What makes this book so readable are the two voices of Nao and Ruth and the idea that "Ruth" is telling both stories. She has annotated Nao's diary regarding Japanese words and cultural norms so that we as readers are almost in the place of Oliver, listening to his wife read from Nao's diary or the letters and journal found with the diary. It feels intensely personal. I had some righteous anger and concern, the same as Ruth, regarding the horrors of Nao's experience with school bullies. It was awful and humiliating and Nao had little visible support at home, and none from the school since it was implied that the teacher was tacitly complicit in the abuse if he wanted to keep his job. I was firmly on Ruth's side when Oliver pointed out that all the events in the diary were in the past, had already happened, and that Ruth's worry and concern for Nao may turn out to be moot in the end. Nao was crying for help and the space of time doesn't negate our concern.
Admittedly, I was skeptical when I realized the "Ruth" in the book was the Ruth who wrote the book - it's her basic biography, her husband, her cat, her island, her parents who appear as characters as well as Ruth herself. It could have felt forced or twee but it works perfectly, I think simply because the storyline of Nao's diary is allowed to inform the storyline of "Ruth" as she reads the diary. Obviously, Nao is a fictional construct and the specific events in Ruth's storyline were created for the novel, but I found myself wondering how closely the book characters resembled their real-life originals and what those people felt about being a character in a novel, if they cared at all.
I loved the idea of time as conveyed throughout the book. It does not stop and we all live in time but if we do not actually live in all the millions of moments in each day we won't appreciate those moments. Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Bhuddist priest and brings so much of that knowledge to bear on the story, particularly through the character of Jiko, Nao's great-grandmother, and how she tries to give Nao a way to navigate her life. It starts right with the title of the book - yes, this is a tale for the "time being", as a way to pass the time, but also echoing the words of Dogen Zenji in that we are all "time beings", physical beings present in time. So mind-expanding, for someone (like me) who really hasn't read or thought about Bhuddist philosophy before.
On top of all this, the actual sentence-level construction of the book is just lovely. I have a tattered little quote journal and I added several favorite lines while reading A Tale for the Time Being:
When her attention was disengaged and fractured, she experienced time at its most granular, wherein moments hung around like particles, diffused and suspended in standing water. (p 91)
I was still thinking about what she said about waves; and it made me sad because I knew that her little wave was not going to last and soon she would join the sea again, and even though i know you can't hold onto water, still I gripped her fingers a little more tightly to keep her from leaking away. (p 195)
...but memories are time beings, too, like cherry blossoms or ginko leaves; for a while they are beautiful, and then they fade and die. (p 390)
And finally, one from p 42, that I had to photograph since I'm not sure how to get Japanese characters into a post:
A Tale for the Time Being is a definitely recommend, likely one of my favorite books this year and it's only January.
Dear FTC: I purchased a copy of this book.