A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

17198941Fiction — audiobook. Read by Ruth Ozeki. Penguin Audio, 2013. 14.7 hours. Library copy.

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 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 a ways she can scarcely imagine.

Across the Pacific, a novelist named Ruth lives on a remote island in Canada and 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.

Ozeki’s novel was selected by my new book club as our June read. Knowing absolutely nothing about the book, I downloaded the audiobook and insisted my parents listen to it with me as we crisscrossed New England for a post-graduation vacation. Admittedly, not the best idea because Nao has an obsession with being raped by a pervert in a motel room only to be strangled with her own panties, and she describes the female anatomy of the young and the elderly in great detail whilst insisting that she’s not a pervert and hopes you aren’t, too. It’s an awkward thing to listen to with your parents, and I still managed to nod off at multiple points.

However, by the time Nao goes to stay with her great-grandmother, 104-year-old Buddhist nun Jiko, I was completely in raptures with the novel. Ozeki’s book builds from the contradictory understandings what “time being” means — “time being” being the present moment that we’re stuck with now and must embrace, or “time being” from the Buddhist viewpoint where each human is entrapped by time, which means that we are all in this together. An ocean separates Nao and Ruth, but it’s time that becomes the more important separator because Ruth wonders if Nao perished in the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, if she will ever have the opportunity to return Nao’s diary to her, or if the timeline of Nao’s diary ends with the beginning of Ruth’s discovery. Something neither Ruth nor the reader can answer because Ruth’s discovery and commentary of the memoir is interspersed between Nao’s narrative and the diary and letters of her great uncle, Haruki #1.

“Where do words come from? They come from the dead. We inherit them. Borrow them. Use them for a time to bring the dead to life.” (pg. 690)

The addition of Haruki #1, who was a suicide bomber during World War II, through his letters, diaries, and, later, his ghost pulls this novel into another dimension and made it the perfect book to read around Memorial Day. Nao’s father, also named Haruki, struggles with suicidal thoughts and tries on multiple occasions to kill himself causing his daughter to grow to hate him, to see his suicide attempts as a sign of weakness while her great uncle’s was a sign of bravery. Another contradiction that Nao, Ruth, and the reader must work through.

Central to the novel and to Nao’s life is her great-grandmother Jiko who teaches Nao how to cope with the abuse she suffers at the hands of her classmates by turning introspective and going catatonic in order to scare them off, by bowing deeply to show them respect they will not show her. Nao sees Jiko as her savior calling upon her memories of the summer she spent with her great-grandmother when Nao eventually finds herself in that motel room with a pervert. I, too, began to see Jiko as a savior of sorts for Nao, and Nao’s eventual return to Jiko’s side was one of the highlights of this book for me. The crash course in Zen Buddhism was fascinating, and I’m so glad I listened to the book as read by the author herself in order to hear exactly how the Japanese words and phrases used through the book are pronounced as well as their meaning.

“That’s what it feels like when I write, like I have this beautiful world in my head, but when I try to remember it in order to write it down, I change it, and I can’t ever get it back.” (pg. 785)

The final section of this book dissolves into metaphysics, particularly the theory of Schrödinger’s cat. (Another reason I was glad to have the audiobook and the eBook.) Schrödinger’s cat illustrates what is called the observer paradox, which is a problem that occurs when trying to measure the behavior of very small things like subatomic particles. In physics, quantum physics says that on a subatomic level a single atomic particle can exist in an array of possibilities in many places at once. The cat could be dead or alive; Nao and her father could be dead or alive.

It’s an interesting concept for Ruth and her husband, Oliver, must work through mirroring the experience of the reader. That is, as the reader, you can see the choices the protagonist has to make and how the story can change based on that one decision. With a normal novel, the author has already made that decision and the reader must ponder over the possibilities. But in Ozeki’s novel, Nao’s decisions are up the air and Ruth steps over that dividing line to help change them. It’s very meta, very interesting and moved this novel from something I could barely stay awake for to one where nothing could pull my attention away. Easily one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

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One comment

  1. I loved this book so much. I read an excerpt from it before it published, in one of those NetGalley compilations of excerpts from forthcoming books, and I was immediately caught by Nao’s voice. It’s a very strange book but a very wonderful one.


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