A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 Booker Prize finalist A Tale for the Time Being tells the intertwined story of a Japanese girl named Nao and a Canadian writer of Japanese heritage named Ruth. Ruth has found a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on shore near her island home off the coast of British Columbia. When she opens the lunchbox, she finds inside a small packet of letters written in French, an old army watch, and a diary handwritten in English. The diary was written by Nao, a teenage girl in Tokyo.

Through Nao’s diary we learn more about her and the circumstances surrounding her decision to write this diary. She and her family had recently moved back to Tokyo after her father lost his tech job in Sunnyvale, California following the dot-com bubble burst. Unfortunately, he has trouble finding work in Japan and falls into a deep depression, which he tries to end through several suicide attempts. Nao becomes the victim of extreme bullying at school, eventually dropping out and also deciding to end her life after witnessing her father’s psychological decline. She does, however, find a spiritual guide in her 104-year-old Buddhist nun great-grandmother, Jiko, through whom she learns the story of her great uncle, Haruki, a kamikaze pilot during WWII and with whom her father shares the same name. Near the end of her story we learn about the parallels between her great uncle and father, and we discover the truth behind Haruki #1’s suicide attack and Haruki #2’s multiple suicide attempts. And yes, we learn to a sufficiently satisfying degree the fate of both Nao and her father.

This is an existential story about conscience, agency, and the meaning and passage of time as well as our role as human beings within this space. At the peak of the story Ruth traverses time and steps into the lives of Nao and her father (or does she?), resulting in a brief moment of magic realism.

The chapters alternate between Nao’s diary and Ruth’s story. Ruth is a fairly successful writer suffering from writers block and living on a remote island. Since discovering the diary, however, Ruth becomes increasingly obsessed with the story of Nao. Who is she? Is she real? Is she still alive? Ruth hypothesizes that her lunchbox was washed away in the Japan tsunami of 2011 and makes effort to hunt down the real Nao and Haruki.

While I loved Nao’s story – Ozeki does a great job of making this intelligent and witty teenage voice come alive – I found Ruth’s chapters to drag a bit. The Ruth chapters are used often to interpret Nao’s diary and to explain the scientific concepts behind such topics as quantum mechanics (to explain how Ruth could have entered Nao’s story briefly at one point), the life cycle of barnacles, etc. Oliver, her husband, is the convenient walking encyclopedia that explains much of these things but all of it felt a bit academic to me, like I was being lectured to. I would sit up straighter whenever Nao’s voice came on and then my mind would sometimes wander when Ruth’s came on. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate Ruth’s perspective or all that she had to offer about philosophy, Buddhism, and science, but I found Nao’s personal story of trying to connect with her suicidal father so engaging that the chapter alternations sometimes felt like an unwelcome interruption and break in flow. I believe there are many readers out there who enjoyed the book precisely because of its interconnections with so many subjects; for me it was a bit much, as I was interested mainly in the more personal aspects of the story.

As for the mood of the book, while I don’t want to give anything away, I will say that it is not all bleak despite the weighty subject matter. There are definitely some parts that were very difficult to read but the story is ultimately heartwarming and rather inspiring. Nao has a lively, engaging voice and somehow the story manages to be serious without being overly dark, funny without being inappropriate. It was, all in all, a thought-provoking and unique/unusual read.

16 thoughts on “A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

  1. Great review of this book, Cecilia! The lunchbox washing ashore reminds me of when I was young, and my sister and I attempted (several times) to send a message in a bottle to the other side of the world (wherever that was). It just kept washing back up on the beach – very disappointing. 🙂

  2. Wow, what a delightful review, Cecilia! I was on the fence about this book after reading other reviews, but I just placed a hold for this from my library after reading your review here. It sounds just right up my alley, with the interconnections between Ruth and Nao’s stories. How am I going to keep up with all my reading if I keep adding to the list? 🙂

    • I’m so glad that my review helped you decide to read it! I was SO excited to read it and I ended up liking it less than I expected to, but I also know it is just me and my personal preferences don’t take away from the merit of the book. So I’m glad my review was fair enough for you to make your own decision. I hope you love it. It *is* a delightful book, and quite unique I think.

  3. Cecilia, your review of this novel reminds me of how I felt after reading Little Bee by Chris Cleave. I loved the voice of Little Bee, but did not care for the chapters that were narrated by Sarah. The alternating chapters concept creates too much of a break sometimes for readers to really identify with the entire book.

    • Thanks for your comment here, Rudri. I’m really noticing the alternating POVs to be pretty much standard these days, and I miss the more traditional structure sometimes.

  4. Nice review Cecilia!

    The tone of Ruth compared to Nao is quite different but I enjoyed her frustrations while trying to track down the Japaese family, and loved the Jungle Crow and the poor cat!

    • Thanks, Ben! Ah yes, I remember that one of the most suspenseful parts of the story was the emailing with the professor at Stanford! And the missing cat too! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  5. It certainly sounds like an interesting book! But one that I will probably skip, at least for now, after your comments about the narrator issues. That’s why it took me so long to finish “Cloud Atlas” – there are 6 layered stories, but some of them are much more interesting and better written than others. Regardless, I’m glad you enjoyed it overall. Though it does seem strange that the magical realism part would be “justified” by an explanation of quantum mechanics — I thought that usually authors didn’t bother to explain the “why” of magical realism.

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