Book review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Several posts ago (I’m not going to go look for the one in question now) I stated my intention to pick a random book to read during Easter Break. I was feeling bored with everything I was reading and I thought that it would be a good way to break out of this reading lethargy. You know, I stick to my accustomed-to shelves pretty religiously. Fantasy, sci-fi to a lesser extent, some historical novels that preferably do not consist only of smut, YA occasionally and all of the millions of classical and renaissance works that I have to read for class. So I was going to ignore those shelves when looking for something new to read and look for something outside of my comfort zone. And boy, am I glad I did.
I was intending to pick something out of the weird recommended books that my eReader keeps throwing at me, but this one came hopping and waving at me out of a Goodreads recommended list. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (and yes, there is a pun in the title).
“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 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 a 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.
A Tale for the Time Being was only published in March 2013, so it is bright, spanking new. You can tell from the writing too. This is a book from a contemporary world about a contemporary world. It is about a world of iPhones and internet and googling and Silicon Valley. It is set in 2012. You might even encounter the odd emoticon in the text.
If I was forced, however, to put a genre to this book, I would probably run away and hide in a corner with a blanket over my head. It is a bit of postmodernism, a bit of magical realism, a bit of diary-form novel (What is the term for that? Can I call it an epistolary novel?), a bit of documentary, a bit of bildungsroman and a bit of teenage angst. All of these things are mixed together to somehow form a coherent whole.
The story is told in switching focalization – between Ruth in British Columbia and Nao in Japan. Nao writes in her diary (apparently in purple glitter pen) and Ruth is reading said diary that was washed up on her beach after the March 2011 Tohuko earthquake and tsunami. In this diary, Nao intends to tell the story of her fascinating great-grandmother, but actually ends up telling the reader more about herself and her own life than anyone else.
Nao is a very compelling story-teller and her parts of the novel left me wanting more each time her chapter was finished. Not only are her parts a crash course in Japanese culture, indeed her writing is strewn with Japanese characters (all translated in footnotes, I was very grateful to see), but she is also an interesting person. On the surface, she is the girl whose life is made hell for her at school and this drives her to suicide, but she is much more than that. She is not helpless, she has a mean streak, her comments on her society are interesting and her family situation is… interesting.
Ruth, on the other hand, is more interesting from a literary point of view. Yes, she shares a name with the author of the novel. But it goes deeper than that – right into postmodernism. She also lives in the same place as the author, according to Ozeki’s website. Her husband’s name is also Oliver, just like the author’s husband. She is also a Japanese-American now living on an isolated island in British Columbia, just like the author. Ozeki’s website doesn’t mention if she also has an annoying cat, though. 😉 In Ruth’s parts of the novel, the borders between fiction and reality are broken down to the extent that I caught myself questioning the fictiveness of this story. You begin to think that this is actually an autobiography… and I also think that was the author’s intention to play with the reader in that way.
Actual events are mentioned and play a role in the story. Besides the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and then the subsequent Fukushima meltdown, 9/11 is also important for the story, as is the bursting of dot-com bubble.
I did, however feel that this book slacked off a little in the middle. Not enough to significantly influence the plot, but enough that I stopped reading for a couple of days (not necessarily a bad thing as I had a stack of homework), so I’m taking half a star off my rating for that. On that note, I’m rating A Tale for the Time Being
It’s a great book and I’ll definitely consider rereading it some time. Of course, I did read it digitally, so I cannot comment on any annoyances in the print editions. The only thing that I can say might be an annoyance is the footnotes translating the Japanese. I don’t know if they will be displayed as footnotes or endnotes in the print editions. Footnotes are one thing, but if they are endnotes, it might be annoying to be paging back and forth all the time. If I had to do that, I’d feel as if I’m reading one of those horrible books on Freud or hermeneutics for class and I might not enjoy it as much. In the digital edition you just touch the little superscript number and immediately get the note as a pop-up. So that’s convenient.
I hope some of you will check out Nao and Ruth’s tale and I’m sorry I’m so bad at book reviews. I really do enjoy writing these posts though; it’s just that I never know how to review without spoiling everything.
And yes, I know it’s not Wednesday by a long shot anymore. My mind is all messed up because the university decided to change their entire schedule this week so my classes were temporarily moved and so it messed up my brain totally. But now I need to go work, as I’ve done embarrassingly little so far this week. Until next week’s cartoon (hopefully on the right day, this time).