On March 11, 2011, the world watched in horror as the Tohoku region in Japan was struck by a 9.0 earthquake, that led to triggering a massive tsunami. Nearly 16,000 people were reported dead, about 6,000 people injured, and another 2,600 people missing. Since then, reports have been made about items- personal belongings and such- washing ashore the West Coast of the United States, Canada, and other places as well. In Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 novel, “A Tale for the Time Being,” such an instance is explored and carves out into quite a journey.
The novel follows Ruth, who, in the midst of the failure of writing a memoir, comes across a Hello Kitty lunchbox that washes ashore the beaches of the Canadian island she and her husband, Oliver, live on. Believing it to possibly being debris from the tsunami, Ruth uncovers several items; one of which being a diary written by a teenage girl named Nao. As she reads through the diary entries, Ruth strives forward in uncovering the mystery as to who Nao is and whether or not she is alive, dead, or among the missing from the tsunami.
When not reading about Ruth’s journey, Nao presents hers in her diary entries; the only place she can turn to and pour her heart out in an honest fashion. Having lived in Japan for the past year after spending a majority of her childhood in the United States, Nao struggles through many hardships; including being severely bullied at school and maintaining a relationship with her suicidal father. Really the only person in the world whom she has a strong connection with is her great-grandmother Jiko; a 104-year-old Buddhist nun. Desiring a way out, Nao writes for the potential time being who dares to read about her journey.
I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about this novel. Upon its publication last year, “A Tale for the Time Being” became a New York Times bestseller and was nominated for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while and I’m so glad I finally did, because it was an extraordinary read.
Stylistically, I liked how Ruth wrote of her journey through third person narration. By doing so, it made to be more so like reading a novel, and not just an individual’s personal account. Ruth, Oliver, and the other people on the island all become characters whom you come to care about, and always have something interesting to say.
It was also a wise choice on the author’s part to jump back and forth between her story and Nao’s. As a reader, I felt more in line in reading what Ruth was reading, when she was reading, as opposed to just dividing the journeys into their own reserved sections. At least in this case, you can see how the journeys intertwine and connect with each other.
Despite being sixteen when keeping the diary, I definitely would consider Nao to be a very thoughtful person. She’s not upfront and she’s not a know-it-all. She admits her struggles and she admits that she doesn’t know everything. She wonders and rambles without filter about concepts such as time, spirits, and the ancestors she never really knew.
The novel follows Ruth’s journey of learning about Nao’s fate and Nao’s journey of growing up. All the while, quantum physics, history, myths, and the concept of time beings play a role as well, providing avenues to different ways of thinking as the story moves along. There are even some beyond explainable, magical elements that make standout appearances at a number of peaks in the novel, and while some readers might question the authenticity of such happenings as these, I think the real question here is: Is there any evidence as to why this can’t be considered real?
This was an incredible novel, and I’m so glad I took the time to read it. There’s so much to take away from it, and honestly, what more could you ask for from a novel like that?
UPDATE (12/2/14): Since writing this review on Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being,” I have watched and listened to interviews conducted with the author, and have since learned that the Ruth and Oliver characters in the novel are, in fact, fictional characters. While they carry the same names as the author and her husband, have the same occupations, and live in a similar setting as them, it was a way for the author to put herself in as the reader of the intimate reader-writer relationship that’s explored throughout the novel. It’s not based on a real life experience. Nonetheless I leave the general review untouched, just to show Ozeki’s success at blurring the lines between fiction and reality.