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.