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.
Ruth, a Japanese-American novelist and her eco-artist partner Oliver live on Vancouver Island. They discover a package washed up on the shore that contains, among other artefacts, the diary of Nao, a young Japanese girl, written on the pages of an old copy of Proust's À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. A Tale For Time Being alternates between Nao's story and Ruth and Oliver's. Nao is a lively but troubled girl who was schooled in America but returned to Japan, and her story reveals her struggles against bullying at school, her suicidal father, the lessons learnt with her ageing Zen Buddhist great-grandmother and the discovery of her family's past. Nao's story starts as a fairly light tale but becomes increasingly and surprisingly dark with scenes of abuse, torture and prostitution, the Kamikazi pilots of the second world war and the shadows cast by 9/11 and the tsunami of 2004.
To give more of the story away would be unfair to future readers, but the themes covered include ecology, religion, death, time, honour and quantum mechanics and the process of story-telling itself. It is an intriguing tale and one can't help being reminded of Murakami.
However, reading other reviews here, I seem to be in the minority when I say I found this story disappointing and the writing rather flat and dull. Ruth and Oliver never come alive and I had little sympathy for them - Oliver is a particularly irritating character and, for writing that aims to entrance, I found the descriptions of place and character very mundane. I had more engagement with Nao's story (particularly its insights into the peculiarities of Japanese culture) but her voice never rang quite true for me either. There is also some whimsical/mystical nonsense towards the end that was a turn-off for this reader, as were the token references to quantum mechanics (it's all too easy to drop in references to Schrödinger's cat to make your story seem a little more profound than it is).
If this review seems harsh, it is probably mostly down to personal taste. This is an intelligent book with a lot of ideas and most readers will engage with at least a few of them. For me, its ambition surpassed the author's ability and parts of it verged on the pretentious. But I know others have and will love it, so don't let me put you off.
on 4 March 2013
The novel is wonderfully rich and a fantastically rewarding read. Ozeki presents a tale that folds in on itself, taking the reader into different cultures and times, painting pictures with words in a way that reminded me of a Miyazaki film. The story of Nao (now?) in Japan and Ruth in the Pacific North West echo in and out of each other, with ideas about ageing, and death, mourning, family life, karma, life in the difficult 21st century, creativity and the very odd place that is contemporary Japan. The relationship between Nao and her grandmother is particularly poignant and I loved the sections of the book that take place in the monastery - it gives such a contrasting picture of Japan from Nao's life in downntown Tokyo. It's a book I will return to, I am sure, because there is so much contained in it's pages. A truly remarkable novel and one that I am sure will still be read in decades to come. Ruth Ozeki is a true literary sensei.
Shortlisted for the 2013 Booker, this tells two intertwined tales - of Nao, a Japanese schoolgirl, and of Ruth, a Canadian author of Japanese heritage. Ruth has found Nao's journal washed up on the shore and begins to obsess about finding out whether the people and events Nao discusses are true. Nao's story is of a young girl who has lived most of her life in California but has now returned to Japan and we see the society through her eyes.
Nao's story is interesting, if bleak. Having been brought up in California, Nao is seen as an outsider by her classmates on her return to Japan. We learn of the extreme bullying she is both subjected to and participates in at school, leading her to drop out. Meantime, her suicidal father is making repeated failed attempts to end his own life, leading Nao to harbour suicidal thoughts of her own. In an effort to break this cycle, her parents send her to spend the summer with her old great-grandmother, a Zen nun, who rapidly becomes Nao's sole support and spiritual guide. While here, Nao learns the story of her great-uncle, a war-hero who died during WWII.
Ruth's story is a dull distraction. Ruth is a writer, struggling with long-term writers block, giving Ozeki the opportunity to tell the reader, at length, how very, very tough life is for writers - even one who lives in fairly idyllic surroundings with no apparent real health or money worries and with a partner who loves and supports her. She is also in a perpetual state of existential angst and this part of the novel merely serves to interrupt and slow to a crawl the telling of Nao's tale. And to make matters worse, Ozeki introduces a quasi-mystical, quasi-quantum-mechanical element into Ruth's part that turns Nao's believable and often moving story into some kind of mystical fantasy in the end. The underlying questions that are being examined - of identity and the nature of time - are addressed with a subtlety in Nao's story that is almost destroyed by the clumsy handling of Ruth's portion of the book.
The writing is skilful and confident for the most part and, when telling a plain tale, Ozeki writes movingly and often beautifully. Unfortunately she has attempted to be too clever in this, not just with the supernatural nonsense, but with the whole conceit of Ruth translating Nao's diary as we go along. This leads to lots of unnecessary footnotes, silly little drawings and playing with fonts, all of which merely serve to distract from the story. Ruth will translate a sentence except for one or two words, which she leaves as Japanese in the main body of the text, and then gives the translation a footnote - why? It would be understandable if she only did this with concepts which may be unfamiliar to a Western audience, but she does it for normal words - like leaving in 'zangyo' and telling us in a footnote that this means 'overtime'. The flow of reading is constantly interrupted by the need to check the bottom of the page to find out what the sentence means.
While sometimes telling a story from different points of views adds depth, in this case unfortunately the contrast serves only to weaken the thrust and impact of the main story. Had this been a plainer telling of Nao's story alone, it would probably have got top rating from me, and overall there is enough talent on display here to mean that I may look out for more of Ozeki's work, keeping my fingers crossed she finds a way to end future books without resorting to the fantastical. But, for me, it's hard to see how this could stand in contention with either of the other Booker nominees I've read this year - Harvest or The Testament of Mary. Of course, that probably means it will win...
I thought this a very good book in many ways and although it did take me a long time to get into it, I found it a very involving and rewarding read in the end.
Ruth Ozeki writes very readable prose which is sometimes rather beautiful but never tips over into the self-regarding. The story, well summarized elsewhere, is of a writer (Ruth) on a remote Canadian island who discovers, washed-up on the beach, a container with letters and the diary of a Japanese schoolgirl (Nao). The narrative alternates between the diary and Ruth reading it and investigating its story and its author. I confess that I found the first 100 pages or so difficult to get into and a bit stilted and self-conscious, but Nao's voice and her insights into Japanese society drew me in eventually, and I found her story involving and touching. I never quite felt the same about Ruth's sections which always felt slightly artificial and mannered to me, although Ozeki generates a very good sense of place and atmosphere around the characters.
There is a lot of philosophical content here, much of which is very good. It includes some rather profound insights about love, about growing up and learning to look outside yourself and about Zen. Late in the book there is also quite a bit about quantum physics. My heart sinks a bit when I realise that a novelist is starting on quantum physics because it often degenerates into dreadful nonsense, but to Ozeki's credit she gets the physics right, although I thought that her drawing of parallels between quantum physics and Zen were less successful and didn't really add up to that much. (But then, from Fritjof Capra's The Tao Of Physics onward there has been a great deal of nice-sounding verbiage and a good deal less real substance written about physics and Zen, so she's not alone.)
I could also have done without the mystical elements toward the end. (I won't give any spoilers) I could see what Ozeki was driving at and why she structured it as she did, but in a factual narrative it seemed a little silly in places. Not quite Carlos Castaneda, thank heavens, but heading that way at times.
This review may seem rather more critical than I mean it to be. I enjoyed the book in the end and think it had some important things to say. I did have reservations, but would still recommend it as a readable, intelligent and in places quite profound book.
A big thank you must go to Philip at my local bookshop, he had just read this at the time and due to his enthusiasm I bought a copy, otherwise this book would probably just have passed me by. Ruth Ozeki's novel is truly wonderful, it pulls you in and holds you as you work your way through it and become involved in the tale. I should point out that this is complex and takes in many subjects and emotions, but this adds to the fascinating story that you end up reading.
On the surface this is the tale of a woman, Ruth, living on a small island in Canada finding a bag washed up on shore containing books and a watch. The bag belongs to a Japanese schoolgirl, but how did it end up washed up on the island shore, and when was it written? One of the books is a handwritten journal in French for example, but the main journal is in Japanese, written by schoolgirl Nao. Nao is going to write about her 104 year old great gran, but of course she ends up writing more about herself and her family, especially her father. For a start, right there you are reading about the relationship between an author and a reader, something that happens each time we read a book. We read about Ruth's feelings as she reads and her wanting to know more, whilst we also read Nao's words, which gives us a massive insight into the Japan of today.
Into this story though big topics are incorporated, nature, our relationship with nature, technology, bullying, perversions, depression, suicide, science, culture and culture shock, philosophy, Zen Buddhism, and history, there are many other things. As you can see this book challenges you to a certain extent, but don't be put off. Skillfully written you find yourself inside the story, gripped by its power, and there are copious footnotes and some appendices if you do find yourself getting outside your comfort zone. Complex and challenging this is, but it is written in such a way that you don't feel like you are being patronised or the author is just showing off. A lot of care and thought has obviously gone into this and we can honestly say that Ruth Ozeki has herein created a masterpiece.
If you are looking for something mature and considered then this book is just right for you, and also it works on so many personal levels. I suffer with depression and so I found that this really spoke to me on that level, especially as I have overdosed in the past, and was bullied out of a job. It is because this has so many levels and covers so many things that this book really comes alive, making it a very personal read for so many of us. This is timeless and is for everyone and is sure to be a hit, not only with individual readers, but also with book groups.
One thing I haven't tried yet is the cover. If you have a suitable device and the blippar app downloaded, then the cover becomes interactive. So far I can honestly say this is the best book I have read this year, and it is so engrossing. This is truly world literature.
on 31 December 2014
Like many other people, I came to this title through the intriguing premise, the glowing critical reception it received, and the fact it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. However, above anything else, the most important thing to consider when deciding whether or not to read this book is the following sentence from the author's profile: "In June 2010 she was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest." I wish I'd spotted this sooner, because if I had I would have steered clear. Essentially this is not really a pure work of fiction, as it appears. In fact it's a Buddhist tract in novel form – in much the same way that Sartre's Nausea is an Existentialist essay in novel form. So, if you're into Buddhism, or spiritualism in general, you will probably love this book. If, however, you're a cynic about these things (like me), you won't. It's not as bad as the appalling Celestine Prophesy (which I have also read), and there are parts that are engaging – such as the insights into the life of a modern-day Japanese teenager and a World War Two Kamikaze pilot. But towards the end, the story becomes so daft that I found myself tutting out loud with irritation. Ultimately it left me feeling pretty cross - as if I'd been conned into reading it in much the same way a religious evangelist might lure you into their world by inviting you round their house for pizza and a movie only to spend the evening trying to convert you. You have been warned; I wish I had been.
A Tale for the Time Being is a very strange novel. Broadly, a lonely and isolated writer of Japanese heritage called Ruth (who could that be?) finds a diary washed up on the beach, wrapped up with a watch and some other papers in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, on the beach in British Colombia. In equal measures, Ruth reads the diary (written in first person by a Japanese 15 year old called Nao) and has her own story told in third person narration.
The story veers constantly between the very mundane story of bullying at school, poverty, loneliness through to questions of purpose, existence, suicide and time. At its core is the Buddhist idea of the butterfly flapping its wings - everything causes ripples and the ripples change history. There are multiple possible futures and, if so, there are multiple possible pasts. Until a future or a past is known, it can be anything.
Ruth Ozeki plays mindgames with the reader constantly in this dense novel; but the reader only really catches on half way through. It is quirky and eccentric; also fairly difficult to get to grips with. This is not helped by digressions in Japanese and French that are footnoted.
In amongst the philosophy, there are some excellent depictions of loneliness on the edge of civilisation in Canada, and social isolation for those who do not have career success in Japan. There are culture clashes as east meets west but Ozeki drives home a pretty forceful message that the west is not the best.
The two narratives interweave in ever less probably ways and the ending, when it comes - and it takes its time doing so - feels unusually satisfying for a text that has got so weird. I suppose that is because the weirdness is grounded in such everyday situations.
The characterisation, especially in the Japanese sections, is deep and convincing. Information is fed to the reader to allow the situation to be constantly re-appraised and people to be seen in new lights. The people in Canada feel more like devices designed to allow ideas to play out - but as devices go, they are good ones.
A Tale for the Time Being is not going to be a light read. Don't take it to the beach - not even one in British Colombia - but give it room to breathe, just stick with it if it gets weird for a bit and all will be right in the end.
Glad to see this one on the Booker longlist - hopefully it will last through to the shortlist.
on 16 July 2013
I was really excited when I got a hold of this book. Great reviews and almost every aspect of the story something I'm really interested in. It even started off with a great few chapters that drag you in to what seems like becoming a really fascinating mystery. And then, about a hundred pages in...it stops being all that and becomes a rather self-indulgent and depressing nothing.
I found there were too many strands to the story and that they just don't really come together in any satisfactory way. The main two are the lives of a Japanese teen (Nao) who writes a diary which is found by a woman living in Canada (Ruth). Nao's story is the more interesting and she is by far the more engaging character, but her diary seems to begin and end at what seem like fairly arbitrary points, while Ruth's story begins with her discovery of the diary and ends with her finishing her reading of it and is of very little interest, only serving to break up Nao's narrative.
With the exception of Nao's great grandmother who is an old nun, I can't say I really particularly liked any of the characters in the book. Nao's voice is very personable and refreshing (and is well maintained throughout) but it's not enough to carry her story, which is mainly about her suffering at the hands of (I felt highly exaggerated and unrealistic) bullies and her mostly passive observations of her suicidal father. Other characters appear and disappear simply, it seems, to help progress the plot and a mish-mash of pseudo-philosophical lessons are babbled by all and sundry.
I was especially bemused towards the end as aspects of quantum mechanics begin to be discussed to no discernible purpose and when the last scenes rather limply arrived, I had pretty much given up caring.
A work of great imagination, ingenuity and compassion, Ruth Ozeki's
fine novel 'A Tale For The Time Being' deploys a chance occurence to
examine the meaning of two parallel lives. The voice of Nao, a sixteen
year old Japanese girl, whose diary is found by Ruth, a writer, washed up
on the shore of her Vancouver Island home, rings clear and true across
both time and shifting tides. It is a moving and complex narrative in
which one woman's absorption in the words and thoughts of another involves
the reader by default as yet another participant in the unfolding drama.
A compelling story. I was intrigued and moved in equal measure.