Book review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

cv_a_tale_for_the_time_beingThis book is in bookstores now.

Time is a funny beast; you’ll notice this most in life’s big events where it’s amazing that the earth keeps running to schedule while you’re entirely ensconced in whatever heartache has befallen your world.

If only we could be the master of time as we impatiently wait for a reply to that most important of emails, or seek to discover the truth about a girl whose life is in danger across the world or as we watch the Twin Towers fall again and again in replay on television.

And so time plays out in Ruth Ozeki’s third novel A Tale for the Time Being – In a way that’s not strictly linear but that curves and shifts and plays tricks on the reader.

Ruth and Oliver (fictional characters but (a quick whizz around Google will tell you) highly autobiographical)) live on the Pacific coast of Canada. A few months after the 2010 tsunami Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore. It contains a diary…

Nao lives in Tokyo. She is sixteen, and has decided to write a diary before she kills herself. She has plenty of material – school bullies, depressed parents – but she particularly wants to chronicle the life of her great-grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun. And eventually, Nao thinks, her diary will find its reader.

As Nao’s diary and its stories unfold it is Ruth’s job, as her reader, to unravel the mysteries at the heart of it. Presumably it’s the Ruth of the novel who provides us with footnotes and explanations on the Japanese words and kanji used in Nao’s diary and who provides the detailed appendices on topics ranging from Zen Buddhism to Schrödinger’s cat.

Far from being a straightforward novel A Tale for the Time Being is a contemporary story but also an examination of Japanese culture and history, which adds layers to the complex and compelling novel and slows down the reading of it as you add to your knowledge.

The perception of time in this book is tricky – it twists and turns in anything but a straightforward narrative. In fact, towards the end of the book Oliver points out to Ruth that while she’s flustered about a sixteen-year-old Nao, realistically Nao is probably much older now and has moved on with her life and is no longer the person she was when she wrote the diary. As a reader I was genuinely shocked at this statement because like Ruth I’d became entirely caught up in my version of Nao being a 16-year-old presently living in Tokyo.

In other parts of the book time is also cleverly trapped – Ozeki’s recall of the events of 9/11 is spot on; clean, compelling and to the point of describing exactly how time slowed down for much of the Western World that day without allowing for the over-emotional pleas that many other references to the Twin Towers are apt to incite.

In telling the tale of Jiko, a Buddhist nun and Nao’s grandmother we are taken to a Buddhist temple, which in my mind was not unlike the sanctuary in Hauriki Murikami’s Norwegian Wood. Time slows here, life becomes simpler as we focus on daily rituals but then becomes deeply complex again as we hear the story of Haruki no. 1, Jiko’s son and a Kamakazi pilot in WWII. Haruki’s visit to Noa as a ghost (or perhaps in a dream state) is one of three episodes of magic realism and fantasy in the book, which each seek to challenge what we know, and take time into new dimensions.

“Do not think that time simply flies away. Do not understand “flying” as the only function of time. If time simply flew away, a separation would exist between you and time. So if you understand time as only passing, then you do not understand the time being.”
Dogen Zenji, Uji (page 259).

Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is a well-researched novel that includes myriad factoids on top of and in between a compelling contemporary novel. There are a lot of big ideas here and at times I struggled with the momentum to grasp them all and give them the proper brain time they required.

The second half of the book was far and away the better for me – more because the treatment of time as a fluid entity was discussed and I found it more interesting than Nao’s introduction and the discovery of the diary and initial set up of the story. I found initially that the use of the names Ruth and Oliver (in third person) when the author and her husband were also called Ruth and Oliver irked me. It became clearer as time (and the story) ticked on why the author had made this decision but be prepared for it. Early in the novel Ozeki talks about her unpublished memoir and at times it seemed like this was a way to tick that off the list.

If you haven’t read any Ozeki before then start with A Tale for the Time Being. It’s a good novel with a lot to give and includes strands of environmental writing that harks back to her earlier works.

If you’ve previously read and loved My Year of Meat and All Over Creation then approach A Tale for the Time Being as a contemporary novel but not necessarily one in the same vein as Ozeki’s other work.

Reviewed by Emma McCleary, web editor at Booksellers NZ

A Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781922079183

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