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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Review: 'A Tale for the Time Being'

By Ruth Ozeki
Literary Fiction
March 2013
ISBN: 978-0670026630

Time, our place in time and our place within a social structure are focused on in Ruth Ozeki’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, A Tale for the Time Being. What gives the novel its philosophical foundation are the beliefs of its author, who is a Buddhist priest.

This foundation also provides an emotional and moral center to the tales of three women, what they believe and the love they feel that is grounded in their beliefs.  Throw in quantum physics, Schrodinger’s cat and folklore about crows, and the result is a heavyweight novel that is easy to absorb  and worthy of contemplation.

Ruth is the present-day narrator who  shares with her author creator being a writer and a Buddhist priest living in British Columbia. The fictional Ruth and her husband live in a small village on a sound, where the ocean waves still manage to deliver a package. It at first appears to be a copy of the Proust novel À la recherche du temps perdu saved in plastic.

It is instead a journal remade with the novel’s cover, a journal written by a teenage girl in Japan around the turn of the 21st century.  Nao was raised in Silicon Valley when her father went to work there, but the bursting of the dot com bubble sent the family back to Japan. She is the epitome of a stranger living in a strange land.  She isn’t fluent in Japanese. She’s behind in school. And she is bullied. The bullying is relentless and  harrowing. Her classmates even hold a fake funeral for her and put it on the internet.

Without consulting her, her parents decide to send her for the summer break to her great-grandmother Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun in a remote mountain location. This nun is the kind of fictional character who should exist in real life. She’s a spiritual Auntie Mame who helped form some of Nao’s father’s best memories as a boy and is showing, not telling, her great-granddaughter the power of zazen, a method of meditation. She also hopes Nao develops a superpower.

Ruth could use the power of meditation. She’s been trying to write a memoir of her mother, who died several years ago after suffering from Alzheimer’s, but has been stalled for ages. As a writer, she knows this is not healthy:

An unfinished book, left unattended, turns feral, and she would need all her focus, will, and ruthless determination to tame it again.

Instead of her own work, Ruth is captivated by Nao and worries about her, even though the journal was written years ago. It may have reached Canada in the vanguard of debris drifting over after the tsunami and Fuskushima disaster, which is ongoing.

Ruth doesn’t even know if Nao is still alive. She not only wrote about killing herself, her father is sinking into depression ever more deeply because he cannot find work after they return to Japan. He isn’t even successful at killing himself. He does roam the streets at night, and sometimes Nao follows him. These sections are highly reminiscent of Murakami’s writing, especially in 1Q84 during night sessions involving a playground swing in the middle of a metropolis. Ruth also is having a hard time finding evidence online that Nao is real.

Meanwhile, Nao plans to write a biography of Jiko but like Ruth, she gets off-track and the work is not done. Jiko admires early Japanese feminists, and may or may not have written an “I-novel”, an early form of Japanese confessional fiction. Is this what Nao’s journal is? She is deliberately reaching out to someone who will one day read what she has written:

Maybe when I ask you a question like “You doing okay?” you should just tell me, even if I can’t hear you, and then I’ll just sit here and imagine what you might say. You might say, “Sure thing, Nao. I’m okay. I’m doin’ just fine.”

Is she practicing I-fiction or trying to find someone, anyone, since her new life is so desolate?

While Nao’s father is trying to commit suicide, the reader also learns about Jiko’s son. He was a kamikaze pilot during World War II. But he also was a scholar, a lover of French literature and poetry. Writings of his also surface.

Perhaps it is inevitable, but there is an element of the fantastical toward the end of the novel before Ozeki brings everything back together. I can’t say much without going into spoilers but again, it felt like wandering into Murakami territory and it felt right.

Ozeki weaves in ideas about bullies, both personal and corporate, sustainability, old growth and how to live at peace in the multiple POV narrative that doesn’t feel forced. There is ultimately a calmness that the writing delivers, and it has to do with realizing how connected we all are.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission


  1. This is the book I have suggested for my book club next year. I am so glad it was such an interesting exercise. Thanks for your fantastic review!

    1. So good to see you! There should be a lot to talk about with this book -- I left a lot of subtopics out. But I liked it very much.