A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A very good, but also a very ambiguous read with respect to its central themes. A philosophical treatise on time and its machinations, including interesting detours into quantum laws and Schrödinger’s cat theory, as well as a touching coming of age tale of the Japanese protagonist, the story is framed as a diary written by an adolescent girl in Japan interspersed with the story of the couple at whose shore in remote Canada the book (along with some other artifacts) washes up in a lunchbox. Was it the tsunami in Japan which carried the belongings of various inhabitants over the years to North American shores? Was it even a real story?
These are the questions which Ruth, the narrator author who finds the book, initially struggle with as she paces her reading in line with her counterpart’s (Nao) life. Ruth is an author who moved from the city to this remote location in Canada to be with her husband, the mild mannered and environment minded Oliver. Struggling with her own issues of a feeling of displacement and writer’s block, she finds herself being embroiled and obsessed with Nao’s diary.
For it’s not a simple life story which Nao sets out to narrate to the unsuspecting reader. A life rife with initial bliss, disappointment, cruel bullying, abuse and seemingly destined to end in suicide. Part of a small family comprising of her mom and dad living in California, where her dad was a software developer with a fat paycheck, she finds her world crashing down when the dotcom bubble bursts and her dad loses his job and most of their savings. Forced to move back to Japan to cramped quarters and a public school she can’t even begin to comprehend how to deal with, she starts getting mercilessly bullied by her peers. Her dad doesn’t prove much of help either. After giving up the charade of trying to find a job, he withdraws further into himself and wallows in despair and his own suicidal tendencies. However, the visit of her great grandmother Jiko, the hundred and four years old Zen Buddhist nun, gives her, and her family, hope. Jiko, who lost her own son in World War 2 (he was a kamikaze pilot), gives Nao the ability to user own ‘supapawa’ (superpower) to combat with the cruelties she faces every day and the despondency of her family life. These are undoubtedly some of the most touching portions of the novel.
Meanwhile, with each part of the diary she reads, Ruth and her husband Oliver try to find out more about this mysterious Japanese family from whatever source they can find from the internet. Did she eventually commit suicide? Was it the Tsunami which finally did them in? How in the world did the book wash up on their beach? And how long ago was it written? Is there a chance she is still alive?
It’s intriguing and touching for the most part. Some portions, like the extreme bullying and her dad’s character does strike you as excessive though. Was it a pandering to stereotypes the West have of Japan? However, it cannot be denied that the writing is very real and brutally real. There is no showboating in her writing and the interspersed sections with Ruth and her husband struck me for the ordinariness of their relationship. By which, unlike what quite a few reviewers have felt, I actually liked it. There is no gratuitous love making or extraordinary rifts. Just a simple, comfortable relationship between two people who obviously love each other and have been together for a while.
However, the last part is what I’m confused about. Magic Realism and dreams altering the story are fine when they serve the theme well, but I’m not sure here it really works. The shift in tone from a straightforward narrative to a discussion of alternate universes and dreams is not seamless. Though, with the whole concept of the ‘time being’ which Nao explains in the beginning does partly attribute to the digressions into Quantum physics and other theories.
Which is why I’m finding it very difficult to rate this book. Since Goodreads doesn’t have a 3.5, I would probably just about make this a 4. You may not love it, but you definitely won’t regret having read it.