Published in 2013, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliant and beautiful book. At its heart are two narratives. We read the diary of Nao, a teenage girl who has recently moved back to Japan after having spent most of her life in the States. She documents her and her family’s struggles, as well as the inspiration she finds in her great-grandmother, a hundred-and-four-year-old Buddhist nun. As we read her diary, so does the novel’s other central character. Ruth stumbles across Nao’s diary on the beach wrapped in a plastic bag and begins to read.
I read this book in one day. Considering that it is 422 pages long, this should give you a rough idea of just how good it is.
The writing is simply incredible. It is so rich and beautiful, so thought-provoking and strange in the very best of ways. In all sections of the book, I was impressed by Ozeki’s clear and beautiful style. For me Nao’s narration strikes the perfect balance between being poetic and literary, and being natural, conversational and easy to read. She discusses such complex, deep and at times philosophical issues in manner that is never unbelievable or out of sync with her personality.
Indeed, the characterisation of Nao is superb. I think Oliver is fascinating, and Ruth is an interesting individual, if not as compelling as Nao. Nao’s father is portrayed complexly and interestingly, and we slowly discover more and him through his relationship with his daughter. Likewise, the relationship between Nao and her great-grandmother Jiko was beautiful and deftly done. You get a very strong sense of Jiko’s personality and the care she feels for her family. The familial relationships presented in this book are done so movingly and realistically. Admittedly, I probably would have liked a stronger sense of Nao’s mother, but perhaps her absence in the novel reflects the absence Nao feels she has in her life, working long hours as she does, unaware of Nao’s problems.
A Tale for the Time Being is driven, for me, not only by its characters and by Nao’s narrative voice, but by the exploration of its themes. It is a novel that deals with grief, mental health, family, bullying, and Buddhism – as well as examining the divides cultural differences can bring. Part of Nao’s struggle in moving back to Japan is that, while she was born there, she has grown up in American. Unlike her parents, she identifies not as Japanese but as American. Yet as her experiences in Japan distance her from her friends back in California, she loses all sense of belonging and struggles to feel she has a home.
I was fascinated by the novel’s themes of reading and writing itself. For Nao, writing is in part a form of therapy, and in part a goodbye. In her loneliness, she writes to a specific ‘you’ even though she has no idea who that ‘you’ might be. Part of what I loved about this book is that the story Nao intends to write is not quite the story she writes. She sits down to write about her great-grandmother, and in the end writes her own story and Jiko’s in one. Likewise, Ruth’s growing obsession with the diary she’s reading adds an interesting element to the novel. She becomes so involved in Nao’s story that she forgets that it happened some years in the past, that her and Nao do not exist in the same time. In this way the novel fascinatingly explores the power of words to cross distance and time, to bring one world closer to another.
I love the way the plots interweave, the way we get snapshots of Nao’s family history not only from Nao herself, but from her great-uncle’s letters, and from Ruth’s research. For example, the image of Nao’s father we get from Nao is quite different from the image we see from his article that Ruth finds online. I love how Ruth’s present interacts with Nao’s present and interacts with the past of the Second World War. I love that we read on two levels; we both read Nao’s diary and read Ruth’s reading of Nao’s diary.
Saying that, I did much prefer Nao’s narrative to Ruth’s. I always found myself rushing through Ruth’s chapters, desperate to get back to Nao’s. Certainly Nao is the central character; it is her story at the heart of the book, and so she is probably supposed to be more compelling. A substantial part of Ruth’s chapters revolves around the search for more information about Nao. It would not be the same novel without Ruth’s chapters; they are key to our understanding of Nao as a whole – and yet I felt it was a shame that I found Ruth mainly interesting as a lens with which to discover more about Nao, rather than of interest in her own right.
Nonetheless, I still thoroughly loved this book. The character and narrative voice of Nao, and the story she tells are so superbly thought-out and so deftly executed that I cannot wait to read more by Ruth Ozeki. A Tale for the Time Being is an incredibly gripping, powerful read, and one I highly recommend.
Greatest strength: The character and narrative voice of Nao.
Greatest weakness: As I’ve said, I was much more gripped my Nao’s chapters than Ruth’s.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. 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.’
Next week: The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness
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