A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki was, in a word, unexpected.
I picked it up because a remaindered copy was on sale at my local bookstore and I liked the cover art, plus I had a vague understanding that it was about Japan.
The story itself involves the lives of two different characters and takes place in two different times: Ruth, a novelist (who is both the novelist of this story, and not) living in Whaletown, Canada and Nao (pronounced: now) a bullied teenager who lives in Tokyo, Japan. The diary and Ruth’s reality exist about a decade apart.
Ruth, living in a secluded part of Canada, finds Nao’s diary, along with some other letters and a watch, washed up in a plastic bag on the beach. Immediately, Ruth begins to piece together the elements within the bag, weaving a living tapestry of a Japanese teen, despite Nao’s story being told an ocean away, and in the past tense — something Ruth (and the reader) often forget. Nao’s story is so personal, witty and intimate that I found it impossible to not like her. Ruth’s story is more reserved, withdrawn, as she delves deeper into the mystery of the teen’s timeline.
“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 what appeared to be an epistolary novel, interspersed with present time commentary, A Tale for the Time Being is actually realistic fiction with some magical realism elements and lots of philosophy. There are also postmodern, metafictional elements (which I wasn’t expecting at all), such as footnotes, appendices and the novelist herself who is trying to write a memoir and is, but also isn’t, writing the story we are currently reading. There’s intellectual discourse on ocean flows, gyres, indigenous / nonindigenous species, Zen Buddhism and a smattering of quantum physics toward the end (which I admittedly skimmed).
If you have patience, it’s all immensely interesting.
Patience is essential for a book whose most persistent theme is time and appreciating the here and now (Nao, get it?). The symbolism for time is heavy without feeling oppressive. First, Nao’s diary is bound in the hardcover of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu or In Search of Lost Time, there is also the blunt discussion of suicide (wasting the now), Altzheimer’s (losing one’s memory and therefore sense of time), the constant resurgence of both crows and cats (animals with attachments to archetypal mysticism and the crossing of planes — just a personal note: I think there’s only one cat in the story) and, finally, a kamikaze’s (sky soldier) watch which needs constant tending, winding, much like one’s own life.
“Life is fleeting. Don’t waste a single moment of your precious life. Wake up now! And now! And now!”
In the end, the lives of the women overlap, blur together, as Ozeki toys with our understanding of time, letting past and present wrap together in a slowly revolving gyre that skirts both reality and illusion.
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended For: Man Booker followers, anyone wanting to wake up