Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Review: A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING, by Ruth Ozeki
I picked up A Tale for the Time Being after it got a starred review in Kirkus; I tend to do well with starred Kirkus books, and I liked this one right from the opening lines. These lines come from a diary written by a teenage girl, Nao, who grew up in America but has moved back to Japan with her mother and father. Her father is unemployed and steeped in shame and depression; her mother is trying to support the family, and Nao is just trying to survive. When the book opens Nao's tone is cheeky and funny, but her story goes to some very dark places, and very quickly.
Coupled with Nao is a writer named Ruth, living on a Canadian island with her boyfriend Oliver. They share a quiet life, but grief and anxiety lie beneath the surface. Ruth's mother has recently died, and when she finds Nao's diary washed up on the beach, she becomes more and more concerned about the sixteen year-old's fate.
She has reason to be concerned. The Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred rather near to where Ruth thinks the diary came from, and Nao becomes more depressed and suicidal as the narrative of the diary wears on. There are some interesting things going on in this book. Ruth reads Nao's diary as if it will contain the end to Nao's story, but if Nao is alive or dead at the moment Ruth is reading, the answer won't lie within the diary's pages. Ruth has to negotiate her relationship with the text, to understand what she can and can't learn from it, the same way we always have to understand our position in relationship to what we're reading. In this way the book is really about the act of reading itself, about how to understand what we're reading and to understand that there are things we can never know.
Nao's driving motivation for writing the diary isn't so much to recount her own story but to tell the story of her great-grandmother, an elderly Buddhist nun whose son died as kamikaze pilot at the beginning of World War 2. This story is one she comes upon by accident, much the same way Ruth discovers Nao's. Like Ruth, Nao is left to make sense of the story by herself, with only the most slender of clues. In this way the book closes in on itself a little, like a nesting doll, stories within stories.
A Tale for the Time Being was short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the fact that it lost to The Luminaries only makes me want to read that book because I need to know what made it better! Time Being is a quiet book that I didn't expect to receive recognition- it certainly wasn't hyped or promoted that I noticed- but I think it's a great book for the literary reader who has the time and stamina for a difficult, thoughtful and intricate book. It's not for every reader; it doesn't have much plot, and it's more about introspection than action. And it's long, too. But it's worth it, if you're up to it.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.