I love Japanese history. I loved it so much I wrote my senior history thesis in college on the court culture during Lady Murasaki’s time (Lady Murasaki wrote the first ever novel, Tale of Genji in the 900’s).
I was pleased therefore when my friend selected A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki as her pick for my girlfriend’s book club. A Tale For the Time Being takes place partially in Tokyo, with a 16 year old narrator named Nao and on a small island off British Columbia, with Ruth.
Ruth discovers while walking on the beach, a plastic bag filled a Hello Kitty lunchbox and other seemingly garbage-like items. Upon opening the bag, Ruth finds that these items are from Japan, and likely floated over after the 2011 tsunami. What ensues is a non-climatic story of Nao finding her place in the world, and Ruth figuring out if Nao was a victim of the tsunami.
There is a lot of word manipulation and double meaning in this book. For example, Nao’s name in English would be pronounced now. Time beings all happen in the now. It goes on and on like this, until you’re almost ready to scream at the book, “OK! I get it!”
It should be mentioned that this book was long-listed for the Booker Prize and is very literary. Perhaps almost too literary for the particular stage I was at in my life while reading this book. It should also be mentioned that everyone LOVES this book. I can’t say I loved it, but I didn’t hate it either.
Ozeki, a New Haven native, crams a lot into this book, which is over 400 pages. There is life in modern Tokyo, life on a small Canadian island, Zen buddhism, extreme bullying, Alzheimer’s, kamikaze, physics, time travel, philosophical theory… it just had too much. After a while there were so many issues and concurring themes I wanted to give up. There were several themes I thought could have been saved for another tale, another day.
There were times when I felt Ruth’s storyline was too personal. For me, it was a look into the real life of Ruth Ozeki, without this being an autobiography. Her husband, Oliver, is a secondary, but main character in Ruth’s narrative, and at times I wanted to cringe at the interactions between the two. It was almost a place for her to air her grievances, but not the right forum.
I did however love Nao’s narrative. Being almost the exact same age as her, I could relate to the pop culture references she referred to, and the difficulties of being a teenager in the 2000’s. Nao’s life was not easy, and she had no one, except her Zen Buddhist nun great-grandmother Jiko, who completely understood her. The scenes with Nao and Jiko are the best in the story- Nao is not judged by Jiko, who listens, provides guidance, and parental affection lacking in her life.
If this book had been just Nao’s story, or we found out what happened to Nao, which to me is the great mystery of the book, I would have rated it higher. I partially read and listened to this book, read by Ozeki herself. I enjoyed listening to her inflections and pronunciations, which can be difficult for those not acquainted with the Japanese language.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
See you in the stacks,