It’s almost become tradition around here to do a book review on Saturdays, and I’m all about tradition, as you know. So, in keeping with that, today’s blog is going to be about one of my recent reads.
However, because I like to mix things up a little, too, this book isn’t written for children. It’s not even YA. It’s an honest-to-goodness book written for grownups – so long as they’re grownups with dreams and imaginations and the ability to allow themselves to be charmed and carried away by a story.
The book I’d like to look at today is one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read in my life. It’s ‘A Tale for the Time Being’, by Ruth Ozeki.
This book, this beautiful book, hooked me from the very first page.
You’ll often read, on agents’ and publishers’ websites, about the importance of grabbing your reader from the first line, the first page. For me, the opening lines of ‘Time Being’ are a textbook, if you’ll pardon the pun, example of how to do that. The novel opens with a direct address to the reader, written in the voice of Nao, a Japanese teenager, who is eager to tell us all about what it means to be ‘a time being’, or – simply – a being who lives in time. Her voice is bright, energetic, full of life and spark; she feels real enough to touch.
You can almost see her as she sits in Fifi’s ‘maid café’, a seedy-sounding coffee shop in Electricity Town, in Tokyo. She writes copiously in her journal, which is fashioned out of a cannibalised copy of Proust’s ‘Á La Recherche du Temps Perdu’. She mentions her ‘granny’, who is an extremely elderly Buddhist nun living in an isolated hilltop monastery, as well as her parents and the other children who attend her school. Her life is constrained and, at times, brutal; for instance, her classmates enact a funeral ceremony for her, despite the fact that she is not dead, because they wish to exclude her so thoroughly from their society. She is a lonely girl, one who feels her only friend is the pages upon which she pours out her heart.
This diary ends up wrapped up securely and placed into a Hello Kitty lunchbox, and thence to the sea, from which it washes up on a beach in Canada. From there, it’s found by a woman named Ruth, a blocked writer, who lives with her husband on an island where everyone knows everyone else, not to mention their private business. One character, for instance, a recovering alcoholic, attends the local ‘A’ meeting – so named, we’re told, because there’s no point having an ‘AA’ meeting, as nothing is anonymous on the island. The novel swaps between Nao’s narrative voice (which I loved), and Ruth’s, and each of them tells their story as the book unfolds. Ruth reads Nao’s diary one entry at a time, in ‘real time’ as she describes it, and the complexity of Nao’s situation deepens with every chapter told in her voice.
It becomes clear to the reader that Ruth fears Nao’s diary entered the water after the devastating earthquake which destroyed the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and the subsequent tsunami. She is terrified, for a large part of the novel, that Nao is in danger, and that her family may be at risk. For some reason, she doesn’t seem to realise that if Nao was in the path of the tsunami, she has already been swept away by it; her need to read the diary one day at a time has somehow sucked her into the timeline of Nao’s life. She tries to find Nao, to contact her and warn her about the danger, despite the fact that she knows on some level that it’s impossible. Strangely, despite all the details Nao mentions – including her family and their names, her father’s employment, her ‘granny’ (actually, her great-grandmother), who published a book about Zen Buddhism, her school – Ruth can find no trace of Nao on the internet. Nao’s diary begins to mention her father’s mental health struggles, and his attempts to commit suicide, and Nao (after a particularly horrific bullying experience at school), begins to talk about suicide herself. The quest to find her becomes desperate.
Reading about Nao, trying to help her and find out who she is (or was), gives Ruth back her energy and her love of research and words. In an odd way, reading about what may be the last days of Nao’s life seems to revitalise Ruth’s. I found myself missing Nao’s voice while Ruth was narrating, and missing Ruth’s while Nao was narrating, such was the skill with which Ozeki weaves their voices together while ensuring at all times that they remain completely distinct.
I adored Nao’s exploration of her own history, including the uncovering of her great-uncle’s role during World War II (the sections written in his voice, telling us about his training as a kamikaze pilot, and his final choice, are unspeakably moving); I found Nao’s relationship with her father deeply touching, too. I loved the hazy feeling the whole novel creates, the sense that we don’t know where we are in time – we don’t even know if Nao is real, or merely a symbol (try saying her name out loud and you might see what I mean) – and the fact that despite Nao and Ruth never meet, their lives and destinies are intertwined, just as the lives of everyone who lives in time are intertwined.
It’s a dreamy, shimmering, not-quite-pinnable-down sort of work, a meditative and philosophical novel, a story which takes in Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, Japanese culture and subculture, language, meaning, identity and time. Nao’s voice is utterly charming, and the gradual flowering of Ruth’s seemingly arid existence is wonderful, if at times unsettling, to witness. If you think you’d like a book told through two vastly different lenses, and one which never lets you know quite where you are as you read it, then I can’t recommend ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ highly enough. It’s beautiful, meditative, and utterly engrossing.
Happy Saturday! Happy reading… what’s tickling your eyeballs these days? Any recommendations? Do let me know!