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

This week I have not been very well, but every cloud has a silver lining! Resting gave me the time to zip through a book.

91kC+3XcXoLA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki ticked a lot of boxes for me when I first picked it up. Pretty cover? Yes. Set in an awesome country? Yes. Mysterious-sounding plot? Yes. Unique narrative viewpoint? Yes. Intriguing characters? Oh yes — as soon as a synopsis mentions a 104-year-old Buddhist nun then you know it’s going to be interesting!

I am pleased to say, that these boxes remained ticked throughout. A Tale For the Time Being did not disappoint me one bit, although it was very different to what I initially expected.

This book follows two narratives: Nao and Ruth. Ruth, a struggling writer who lives with her husband and their cat, finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach near their home in Canada. She decides to read it at the speed Nao wrote it, so one entry per day. As she reads on, she tries to uncover the whereabouts of Nao and how the diary came to be in the ocean. Nao writes about her experiences with bullying, her strained family life and her connection to her great-grandmother, Jiko (the 104-year-old nun).

I’m going to give you two warnings now. Firstly:

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!

Secondly, this book contains topics which some readers may be sensitive to, such as war, suicide, rape, and depression. From the synopsis, and even after reading the first few chapters, I didn’t realise this book would be so disturbing in places so I thought I should let you know what you’re in for if you pick it up. However, all of these things are relevant to the plot. They are also neither excessive, graphic, or endorsed.

One of the things I loved most about this book was the setting. Not Ruth’s Canadian island, but Tokyo, where Nao lives. Anything to do with Japan fascinates me, so I all over this from the get-go. But Ozeki’s writing really brings Tokyo to life. Her vivid descriptions of Akihabara made me feel as excited about the place as Nao – I was there with her, marvelling at the giant posters of anime characters and stalls selling electrical goods, fetish costumes, and manga. I could see the lights and feel the chaos of the street as she walked down it. Not many writers can portray places in such a way, but Ozeki has got it down to a tee.

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Maid cafe in Akihabara, Tokyo. Nao frequently writes in her diary from a maid cafe. Akihabara is also known as ‘Electricity Town’ because there are lots of shops selling video games and tech there.

The sections of Nao’s diary also contain footnotes, supposedly written by Ruth as she is reading. These are translations and comments about places or things Nao mentions, and they enabled the book to remain authentic. Readers can enjoy the strong oriental atmosphere of the novel without having the bother of looking things up. It’s all there on the page to take in, and I found myself learning a lot about Japanese culture and language as well as enjoying a good story!

Character-wise, I much preferred Nao over Ruth. Her voice is one of the strongest, most distinct I have ever read, and her diary flows beautifully. It’s very informal and chatty in places. She also directly addresses the reader, asking things like ‘are you still there?’ and ‘I wonder about you. Who are you and what are you doing?’ Ruth’s thoughts about these questions show the profound relationship between reader and writer, and also reveals how writing doesn’t have to be anonymous. There is freedom to interact with people through words, even if you don’t know their responses. Just simply believing they are out there, reading, is enough for Nao.

Whilst I found Ruth’s sections less captivating than Nao’s, I wouldn’t do so far as to call them dull. But by the end I did feel frustrated with Ruth. She does nothing throughout, apart from despair about her unfinished manuscript and think about how she misses living in New York and whether she’s actually happy with her husband, Oliver. She’s clearly unsettled, which accounts for why she becomes so engrossed in Nao’s diary, but she doesn’t learn from what she’s reading or do anything to improve her own circumstances. Neither she nor Oliver undergo any character arc. After all of the profound things they’ve read in Nao’s diary, you would think they would gain some sort of motivation, but no. Ruth doesn’t even start writing again! At least Nao learns to make the most of her time, but even Ruth’s concern for her doesn’t provoke her into becoming a ‘time-being.’

I only realised the meaning of the title once I reached the end. It can mean two things. ‘Time being’ can be the saying, as in something that is temporary or will do for now. But it can also mean that people are beings of time and that this is a tale for us. Clever!

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Risshaku-ji Temple in Yamagata, Japan. This reminds me of the temple where Jiko lives. Image from The Japan Times.

The other thing I will say about the ending is that it’s bold. The main thread of mystery throughout is whether Nao is still alive and how her diary came to be washed up on the beach. This is what keeps the book going, what drives it to the end of both Nao’s diary and Ruth’s search for her. But the thing is, we never find out. Both questions remain unresolved. But somehow, I think it works. I felt less disappointed by this than I did by Ruth’s lack of action! Sure, it would have been great to know, but then that would have completely taken away the mystery. This way makes the story feel more real, as though it could have happened exactly like this instead of being plotted out, because in life we don’t always get to know everything.

I would recommend this to anyone who is curious about Japan or Japanese culture, and also to anyone who is looking to read something genuinely extraordinary. Yes, every book is unique & reviewers always say ‘it’s not like anything else’ or ‘this one is something special’ but A Tale for the Time Being truly is. The plot, narrative structure and characters are like nothing I’ve ever encountered before, and I’m not convinced I will ever encounter such a book ever again.

 

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

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