The cover of A Tale for the Time Being
caught my eye. Bright, bold, clean, and elegant, it stood out on the express shelf at the library. I had put it on my TBR list because the description mentions the 2011 Touhoku tsunami. I decided to sign it out because I’m off to Japan soon and want to read more Japanese-related literature. Though the tsunami is a part of the novel, it’s more of a background framing device than the primary focus on the novel. The story alternates between two storylines: the first-person narrative of Japanese schoolgirl Nao and the third-person narrative of Canadian author Ruth. Ruth finds Nao’s diary washed up on the shores of the remote British Columbian island where she lives (the tsunami comes into play as Ruth wonders how the diary could have reached her). Nao fills the diary with thoughts on her difficult life, while Ruth becomes absorbed in finding out what ultimately happened to Nao. Nao’s tale spans generations, including stories of her suicidal father, her Buddhist nun great-grandmother and her deceased kamikaze grand-uncle. Ruth’s story is less enticing than Nao’s as she functions primarily as a receptacle for Nao’s story. Regardless, the story captured by attention and I read at least 75 pages at a time. I only made three notes about this book. But, now that I’m ready to reflect, there is a lot about this novel to comment on (I think this is my longest review to date!)
This book had many components that, when combined, create the sort of story I enjoy digging into. Some of the components are:
- Observant and introspective narrators
- Few but strong characters with deep relationships
- Zen philosophy and practice
- Vibrant settings in Japan and remote British Columbia
- Exploration of the reader-writer relationship
- Japanese involvement in WWII
- Minor elements of magical realism (ex. ghosts)
Each of these components alone are perhaps not enough to truly capture my interests. The first two points are what create a novel’s hook for me. I love this type of story, where the central character or two is a reflective observer, sharing thoughts both mundane and profound about themselves and the world around them. Maybe that’s why I have trouble connecting with books like The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.
There are some very dark parts of this book, dealing as it does with nasty incidences of bullying, depression and suicide. I felt very uncomfortable during the height of Nao’s bullying and had a hard time accepting that this could be someone’s reality. Thankfully, Nao’s relationship with Jiko (spiritual, philosophical, grandmotherly) balanced the dark parts of the story for me, made them more bearable, as I think it did for Nao.
A lot of the aspects of A Tale for the Time Being that I enjoyed can also be found in the works of Haruki Murakami, one of my favourite authors. Perhaps I enjoy this book so much because it reminds me of my favourite Murakami novel, Kafka on the Shore. It’s not that I like A Tale for the Time Being because it emulates Murakami; I like both of these novels because I like this type of story. Some similarities between the two that I like include:
- Thoughtful young person struggling to find their place in Japanese society
- Connection to old wars gone by
- Touches of magical realism
- Two interweaving storylines, one in first-person and one in third-person*
Personally, I connected emotionally to Kafka but not to Nao. Kafka is so similar to me, while Nao has few experiences to which I can relate. This is why, and I emphasize again for me, Kafka on the Shore is a five-star novel while A Tale for the Time Being is a four-star novel. For another reader, Ozeki’s story could be the one she deeply connects with.
I loved old Jiko and would have liked to read more about her. The book description states “[Nao] wants to accomplish one thing: to recount the story of her great grandmother, a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun, in the pages of her secret diary. The diary, Nao’s only solace, is her cry for help to a reader whom she can only imagine.” Nao’s documentation of Jiko’s life is a framing device through which Nao tells her own life story. Jiko has a prominent role in the story, but the book is Nao’s story. Nao expresses great pride in her great-grandmother’s life, but the reader only learns about Jiko’s final stages of life. I would have loved to hear more about Jiko’s younger days, as a feminist radical, and how (the why is briefly discussed) she transitioned to a Buddhist priest. Jiko is not the main character in the novel, but she is the most fascinating to me and I would have been happy to read more about her.
Ruth’s story has less plot than Nao’s, but I found her story calming and grounding even though it has moments of stress. I think this is because I can picture myself in Ruth’s position, out on this remote island living in a beautiful but discontent state of solitude. In Ruth, the reader encounters encounters a blurring of fiction and reality. Even from the sparse author description on the book, I recognized similarities between Ruth-narrator and Ruth-author. I wondered how closely the two are related (as I did with Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being), but I didn’t investigate further until after finishing the novel. With A Tale for the Time Being, we find an author who openly acknowledges how much of herself is in the fictional Ruth. Of course, the book is first and foremost a novel. I have been conditioned not to make sweeping correlations between fiction and reality based on what I’ve read in a novel**. Therefore, I find it fascinating when an author clearly recreates herself as a character in her own work of fiction. Here are some of Ozeki’s comments on including a version of herself in the novel (these quotes also speak to how the tsunami influenced the book):
“At that point I realized that the book I’d written was not relevant anymore, and I needed to do something to address and respond to the events in Japan. Actually it was my husband who came up with the idea. He said, “Why don’t you put yourself in the book?” And that would give you a voice to use to respond to these events in a more direct way.” (Goodreads Interview)
“The novel is told as a kind of dialogue with two interleaved voices, Nao and the Reader. I realized that Nao’s voice was still fine. The problem was the Reader I’d written. So I unzipped the manuscript, threw away that Reader and stepped into the role myself, as the character of Ruth. Somehow, stepping into the role as a semi-fictional version of myself seemed to be the only way of responding to the magnitude of the disaster, and once I did this, the writing came very, very quickly […] The character of Ruth in this book is me.” (Book Slut Interview)
Some final notes: The book contains a handful of experiments in typography. In one instance, Ruth imagines what ‘temporal stuttering’ would like if it were typed (228). Finally, my favourite passage in the book described “the cold fish dying in your stomach feeling” (180). I think it deserves to be quoted in its entirety, so skip if you’d rather read it in its natural habitat!
It’s the cold fish dying in your stomach feeling. You try to forget about it, but as soon as you do, the fish starts flopping around under your heart and reminds you that something truly horrible is happening. Jiko felt like that when she learned that her only son was going to be killed in the war. I know, because I told her about the fish in my stomach, and she said she knew exactly what I was talking about, and that she had a fish, too, for many years. In fact, she said she had lots of fishes, some that were small like sardines, some that were medium-sized like carp, and other ones that were as big as a bluefin tuna, but the biggest fish of all belonged to Haruki #1, and it was more the size of a whale. She also said that after she became a nun and renounced the world, she learned how to open up her heart so that the whale could swim away. I’m trying to learn how to do that too. (180)
The Bottom Line: I enjoyed this book particularly for the introspective narrative style. The bulk of the story describes the difficulties of an American-Japanese schoolgirl from her point of view, so if that sort of thing particularly disinterests you I would avoid this book. I strongly recommend A Tale for the Time Being if you appreciate observant narrators, Haruki Murakami novels, or Japanese culture.
*Though Ozeki’s novel is far less surreal and the connection between the storylines far more straightforward.
**I attribute this particularly to The Lord of the Rings and The Fault in Our Stars. Tolkien vehemently disliked anyone trying to find allegorical meaning in his work. Tolkien famously wrote in his foreword to The LOTR, “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author”. Regarding TFIOS, I have been a fan of the vlogbrothers and John Green’s writing since 2007. Green has always been very adamant (and rightly so) that his book is a work of fiction. As he writes in the author’s note to TFIOS, “neither novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species”. I generally agree with both Tolkien and Green’s sentiments. I’m not immune to correlating fiction and reality when I think my reading of story will benefit from doing so, but I prefer to let a work of fiction stand for itself.