I recently finished reading A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and enjoyed much of the story. Because the book has multiple narrators and several different storylines, there’s a little something in here for everyone. I could see this being an good choice for a book club, because it be interesting to hear which narrator and plot each reader finds compelling (but a word of caution: it may not be appropriate for every group, because there is some semi-graphic language and content).
The narrator switches back and forth from a 16-year-old Japanese girl (Nao) and a middle-age woman on an island off the west coast of Canada (Ruth). Ruth finds a bag of items on the beach, including a lunchbox, a diary, a watch, a notebook, and a pack of letters. She begins to read the diary – written by the teenage Nao – even though it takes time away from the memoir she is supposed to be writing. The diary illustrates Nao’s life in Tokyo, her relationship with her suicidal father, the brutality she experiences at a Japanese school, and her reverence for her 104-year-old great-grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun. It also tells the story of Jiko’s son, Haruki, who was forced to be a kamikaze pilot for the Japanese army during World War II. Mixed in with these plotlines is Ruth’s own story: living on a remote western island far-removed from her beloved New York City, her anti-social (dare I guess autistic?) husband, her chronic writer’s block, her grief over her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and her fears about her own growingly-unreliable memory.
I thoroughly enjoyed the sections of the book about Jiko, life at Jiko’s Buddhist temple, and about Haruki’s experience in World War II. I found Nao’s story to be enthralling, although it is, at times, quite dark and gritty. Some of the scenes from Nao’s life were as disturbing as, if not more disturbing than, the World War II recollections, which is saying something.
Ruth’s storyline took a while to hook me, though by the end of the novel I had developed a soft spot for her as well. I particularly identified with her writer’s block and frustration over her inability to finish her novel – or, more accurately, her inability to even force herself to sit down and continue pecking away at it! One of my favorite lines comes from Ruth: “An unfinished book, left unattended, turns feral, and she would need all her focus, will, and ruthless determination to take it again.”
A few things to note about this book… First, there are loads of footnotes, which made it difficult to read on Kindle (my Kindle makes me click each footnote to read the note text, then click ‘back’ to return to the page I was reading – an exercise in frustration when you are trying to lose yourself in the story); however, I eventually stopped looking at the footnotes unless I had to and found that, for the most part, it didn’t matter. Second, there are a few sections where the book gets rather “heady” (e.g. a lengthy discussion about quantum physics and Schrodinger’s cat), but don’t let that dissuade you from reading. Just plow on through those parts unless you find them particularly interesting.
Overall, I would recommend this book to someone who enjoys literary fiction. It is not a ‘beach read’ by any means, but I found it to be thought-provoking, gripping, and, at times, darkly humorous. I read it after completing the audiobook for Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (blog post on that one to come), part of which takes place in a Japanese POW camp, so it was especially interesting to dive into a novel contemplating modern-day Japan immediately after that.
If you read this book, let me know what you think about it in the comments section.
Click here to purchase A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.