A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
A Tale For the Time Being is an engrossing story that alternates between the diary of Nao, a suicidal 16-year-old teenage girl from Tokyo, and the musings of Ruth, a middle-aged novelist living in Canada.
Parts of the novel are set a few months after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and the subsequent tsunami which devastated north-eastern Japan. Ruth discovers a plastic-wrapped package washed up on the beach, ominous and covered with barnacles. The package reveals a metal Hello Kitty lunchbox with a diary inside, as well as some other mysterious objects – an antique watch engraved with Japanese kanji characters and a collection of letters written in French. Ruth supposes that the package must have been washed out to sea by the tsunami and set down on the coast of the remote island where she lives, and she seeks to discover more about the diary’s author.
Nao’s first-person narration is often extremely distressing – she suffers insidious ijime (bullying) from her classmates and escapes into the pages of her diary. Yet these chapters are also the most compelling. Ruth’s reading of the journal is a meditation on the space between fiction and reality, exploring the relationship between the writer and the reader, and how humanity is connected through time.
With constant references to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Zen Master Dōgen’s thirteenth-century Buddhist teachings, quantum mechanics and time slips, this novel could span many genres including literary, popular and speculative fiction, as well as philosophy. The novel’s power lies in the way it poses so many questions about states of existence, and how to live as ‘time beings’.
You may lose your sense of reality and wonder what is up or down while reading A Tale For the Time Being, but perhaps you’ll find, as Nao’s great-grandmother Jiko says, ‘Up, down, same thing. And also different too.