Author: Ruth Ozeki
Publisher: Viking Adult
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“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…”
Written by the Japanese American novelist Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being tells the fascinating story of Nao, a 16-year old Japanese girl who has confided to her diary after giving up on her life and family altogether.
The book begins with the first page in Nao’s diary where she introduces herself as a ‘time being’. In later pages, she goes on about describing her life in Tokyo and how she plans on writing all about her great-grandmother Jiko, a 104-year old Buddhist nun.
Then the book changes perspectives and we meet Ruth, Nao’s future reader. She’s a novelist living on a remote Canadian island in Desolation Sound, British Columbia, with her land artist-naturalist husband Oliver. One day while walking on the beach she finds a plastic bag containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox, inside of which are a copy of Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), a series of letters and a ‘Sky Soldier’ wristwatch. But Proust’s book, as she later finds out, is actually a personal diary. After reading a few pages of the diary, Ruth finds Nao’s life very similar to her own, as she often feels isolated herself.
In a different time, Nao is not happy with her life in Japan. She was happy once, when her father had a job in Sunnyvale, California. But when the dot-com bubble burst, her father lost his job and all his money, and they had to move to Tokyo, into a little cramped apartment. Her father Haruki (named after his uncle, a World War II hero), is unemployed and hence suicidal , who spends his days at home reading The Great Minds of Western Philosophy, and using its pages to craft insects afterwards.
When Jiko invites Nao to come and live with her in the temple, she’s sceptical about it. But after spending some time there, she finds the Zen Buddhist lifestyle very blissful. She likes old Jiko and all her philosophical talks, which often come out in phrases like “Up, down, same thing.”
This book surprised me in a lot of ways. The story is one-of-a-kind and very engrossing. The narration is episodic and fluid making the book very readable. The account of Nao’s funeral organised by her bullying classmates is harrowing. The last part of the book meanders widely in between hypotheses of quantum mechanics and infinite number of possibilities in infinite universes, but it’s all relevant to the story.
Nao’s tone is irreverent and irritating at times as she digresses a lot. But by the end, the pieces fall together, and the big picture this book paints, I felt, is very illuminating. Initially, when I had read only first few pages, I found it hard to wrap my mind around the plot and felt that the narrative is tangential and stalling at times. But as I eventually found out, it’s certainly going somewhere and gets very allegorical and intense at points.
After searching the web, I found that the character Ruth in the book is actually a literary avatar of the author herself, as she also lives in British Columbia and married to a land artist named Oliver (though I’m not sure they possess a grumpy cat named Schrödinger as they do in the book), which makes this book even more compelling. I would recommend it to both teenagers and adults.