A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Title: A Tale for the Time Being
Author: Ruth Ozeki (twitterwebsite)
Pub. Date: March 12, 2013
Source: Publisher (Thank you, Viking!!)
Summary: “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 first 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 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.
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Rating: + all the stars

My name is Nao, and I am a time being.

On a seemingly ordinary day, a Hello Kitty lunchbox is washed ashore on Ruth’s small island in Canada. Inside she discovers old letters and a diary written in Japanese along with a few other mismatched items. At the prompting of her husband Oliver, Ruth begins to translate the diary and soon both husband and wife find themselves deeply invested in the life of a sixteen-year old suicidal Japanese girl.

Nao used to have a good life. Her father was a hotshot programmer and provided a wonderful childhood for Nao in Sunnyvale, California. Unfortunately, when the dot-com bubble burst, Haruki Yasutani was let go and the family moved back to Japan. Because she had been so young when the family took off for America, Nao never fully considered herself Japanese and to say her classmates treated her horribly would be putting it lightly. It started out small: pinches and hurled insults. Things quickly escalated and Nao found herself dealing not only with her fellow students, but also with her teacher. Even when they pretended she wasn’t there they were still cruel, going so far as to stage a funeral for her. One particularly heartless attack led to Nao nearly being raped. With each attack videos were posted online and Nao’s parents had no idea just how harsh the bullying became.

I don’t mind thinking of the world without me because I’m unexceptional, but I hate the idea of the world without old Jiko. She’s totally unique and special, like the last Galapagos tortoise or some other ancient animal hobbling around on the scorched earth, who is the only one left of its kind.

She decides her best course of action would be to commit suicide (and get it right, unlike her father’s multiple failed attempts), but before she does, she wants to share her great-grandmother’s story. Now old Jiko spends her days living the life of any other 104-year old: she’s a nun and maintains her temple. However, before she took her vows, she was a novelist, an anarchist, an independent New Woman. She outlived her children and her son’s death hit her especially hard. Haruki Yasutani #1 (Nao’s father had been named after him and dubbed #2) was a brilliant student studying philosophy and reading French literature while the second World War played out around him. He was eventually drafted and quickly learned he would be a Sky Soldier – a kamikaze pilot with a guarantee to never return home alive. Despite his certain death, Haruki continued with his studies and, as Ruth and Oliver learned through his letters, he remained a gentle, peaceful man to the very end.

“I got confused,” she said. “In my mind, she’s still sixteen. She’ll always be sixteen.”
Oliver sat down on the edge of the mattress and put his hand on her forehead. “The eternal now,” he said. “She wanted to catch it, remember? To pin it down. That was the point.”
“Of writing?”
“Of suicide.”
“I’ve always thought of writing as the opposite of suicide,” she said. “That writing was about immortality. Defeating death, or at least forestalling it.”

As Ruth and Oliver learn more and more about Nao, they begin to care deeply for her and her well-being. They anguish with each new bullying attack, become angry with her parents’ blindness. Through it all, the question remains: how did that Hello Kitty lunchbox reach their shore? Oliver’s theory is that it’s the first in a wave of debris from the 2011 tsunami that is heading toward Canada. In the end, they never find an answer, and I like that. Normally I prefer concrete answers – no open endings for me. But A Tale for the Time Being and Nao’s story can only have an open ending. What eventually became of Nao? Did she go through with her plans to commit suicide? Is she still alive? What about her father? It works and I can’t imagine any other way for the story to be told (although I’m sure Oliver would kindly remind me of Schrödinger’s cat and that, in fact, there are numerous other outcomes).

Print is predictable and impersonal, conveying information in a mechanical transaction with the reader’s eye.
Handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin.

I usually finish a book in a day or two. With A Tale for the Time Being I wanted to keep reading, but I also wanted to spend as much time with these characters as possible. I learned so much from old Jiko, I wanted to hug Nao and take her away from the awful children in her school, I wanted to sit down and have a conversation with Haruki Yasutani #1. When I finished the book, I held it close as though by doing so I could hold on to the story inside.

Normally with dual-narratives I tend to favor one narrator over the other. That definitely was not the case with A Tale for the Time Being. I yearned for Nao’s chapters just as much as I craved Ruth’s and devoured every single one. Just like Ruth and Oliver, I soon found myself emotionally invested in Nao’s life and – again, like Ruth and Oliver – can’t picture her as anything other than a sixteen-year old girl.

Just a few chapters into the novel I started singing its praises and didn’t let up for a moment – especially now that I’ve finished. A Tale for the Time Being is a book I’ve already forced upon others and will continue to do so for many, many years to come. Ruth Ozeki created a tale that’s absolutely gorgeous, both inside and out (I will never get enough of that cover! Breathtakingly beautiful and velvety soft) and I feel honored to have read it. With one single story, Ms. Ozeki has earned a coveted spot on my extremely tiny Auto-Buy Authors list and rightfully so. A Tale for the Time Being is so much better than I’m able to express and I know it’ll stay with me long after I move on to other books.

9 thoughts on “A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

  1. When I finished the book, I held it close as though by doing so I could hold on to the story inside.

    These are the absolute best stories, the ones you can’t let go. I think you’ve done a fantastic job of capturing the reasons for why you loved this one so much, and while I hadn’t heard of it until now, it will most definitely be on my radar for the foreseeable future.

    • Thank you SO much. This is one of those books where you can’t fully express how fantastic it is, you just want to shove it in someone’s face and say “READ.”

      If you read it I really, truly hope you love it just as much as I did.

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