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Wonderful and multi-layered
on 9 March 2013
A package containing a diary washes up on the Canadian coast. It is found by Ruth, a writer who lives on Vancouver Island with her husband Oliver and their cat, Pesto (formerly known as Schrödinger). As she starts to read she uncovers the sad and lonely life of a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao. Does Nao exist beyond the pages of the diary and can Ruth find out who she really was?
A Tale for the Time Being is a wonderful, wonderful book that felt oddly rewarding to read. Spanning continents and time, it weaves together Zen, quantum physics and French philosophy into multiple narratives of heartbreak and touching moments of joy.
If that sounds a bit too high brow, Nao's diary has a genuine teenage narrative voice (if you can accept for a moment that teenagers can write full sentences). She writes in English as she spent most of her childhood in California before the dot com bubble burst and her father lost his job. On their return to Tokyo, Nao is the victim of relentless bullying at school as she is the Transfer Student. Whilst she seems to take things in her stride, with a conversational tone and at times witty comments, she is clearly struggling with depression. On top of which, her father has not been the same since he returned to Japan and she hates him for it but he is just as lost as she is.
Nao's diary is not just about her, although her story is heartbreaking and at times shocking. She also tells us about her grandmother, Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun who claims to be 104 (perhaps the very definition of a time being) and her great-uncle who was a kamikaze pilot. The diary was also bound up with letters written in kanji and a small journal written in French, which Ruth must decipher. She also reveals some of the more unsavoury aspects of Japanese culture.
I loved how Ruth's narrative brought the experience of reading into the book. At one point she wonders if it is cheating to want to know more than is held within the pages. Should we just be happy with what the author has chosen to show us? I for one am always looking things up when I read, spurred on to research interesting aspects or to find out what's real and what's made up. So I completely get what Ruth was doing. Ruth and Oliver have an argument one night after they come away from the text with different conclusions; Oliver being positive and Ruth focusing on the negative. Both of them had made assumptions that were right and wrong and it highlights how we all get something different out of a book (there is a Proust quote to this affect). I think I was with Oliver more, hoping for something good to happen to poor Nao.
The title itself was enough for me to pick up this book, with its wonderful double meaning. Nao introduces herself as a time being; we are all time beings. We exist in time, it controls us and we experience it. Nao's name is pronounced "now", a fleeting moment that is then before you finished saying it. References to time are littered throughout the pages. The narratives also encompass a large time frame, from Oliver's interest in prehistoric botany, through key moments in recent history to the present of Ruth reading Nao's diary. Nao states that 9/11 was like a knife cutting through time, but I also think WWII and the tsunami, had the same effect and both of which are important factors in the characters' journeys.
You don't have to understand Zen or quantum physics or Proust to love this book. It might just make you want to read more about one or all of these subjects though. It has left my brain a swirl with thoughts and I could go on for ever about it...but it's only right that I allow you to discover it for yourself.
Review copy provided by publisher.