Sometimes you read a book where you know you didn’t understand a lot of it – but you loved it anyway. That’s how I felt about A Tale for the Time Being. I loved the main characters, Ruth and Nao, and how their stories intersected. I loved learning about Japanese culture through the eyes of a teenager who grew up in Sunnyvale, CA. I ached for her sadness throughout the book, losing her friends and home and being tormented by her classmates. I loved the mystery of how her journal ends up in Ruth’s hands, and I was really moved by the story about a World War II kamikaze pilot.
That’s a lot of love! On top of all that, Ozeki blends concepts of quantum physics, time, language, and Eastern and Western philosophy. There are so many layers and concepts in this book, I’m absolutely sure I didn’t get it all. I’m just happy I got to go along for the ride.
A brief synopsis: Ruth is a writer who lives on a secluded island in British Columbia. One day a plastic bag washes up on the beach, containing a carefully wrapped set of letters in Japanese, a notebook in French, and a journal in English. The journal is written in purple pen by Nao, a sixteen-year-old writing from a cafe in Japan. Nao believes her life will end soon, but she wants to tell the story of her great-grandmother Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun.
Ruth quickly becomes wrapped up in Nao’s story, and I did too. I love a good book-within-a-book, and that’s what you get with this novel. Ozeki thinks about the words, the language, and what’s hidden beneath the surface, even to the level of the ink written on the page and the fact that the journal is crafted by ripping out the pages of an old Marcel Proust novel. This is a book where every word counts for something. For example, Nao realizes she’s writing her journal for someone to read — but who, and when? Will the person like her, or will they throw her words away?
I loved Nao’s teenage voice, and how it changes as the journal progresses. I was particularly struck by Nao’s experiences in the Zen Buddhist temple. Ozeki’s description of how Nao changes and grows with the support of her great-grandmother is really powerful. Jiko teaches Nao about having a superpower:
There are lots of superheroes with different superpowers, and some of them are big and flashy, like super strength and super speed, and molecular restructuring, and force fields. But these abilities are really not so different from the superpower stuff that old Jiko could do, like moving superslow, or reading people’s minds, or appearing in doorways, or making people feel okay about themselves by just being there.
Another interesting layer to this book is that you can’t tell how much of Ruth’s character is autobiographical. Author Ruth Ozeki is married to a man named Oliver, lives in Canada and Japan, and is a Zen Buddhist.
Sometimes I can’t say enough about how much I appreciated a book, and this is one of those. Nao is a frustrating character at times – sometimes you think she’s going to rise above all the problems in her life and then she sinks right back into them. But that’s how life works. Her father is similarly frustrating. And Ruth and her husband Oliver seem to have this deep love for each other – yet at the same time they barely seem to talk to each other.
Quantum physics is possibly my least favorite topic in the world, but don’t be put off by that. I thought of this book as an exploration of time, and what it means to be in time and across time. I think time is fascinating. Can it be bent, and changed? How does the past affect our present, and our future?
Do not think that time simply flies away. Do not understand “flying” as the only function of time. If time simply flew away, a separation would exist between you and time. So if you understand time as only passing, then you do not understand the time being. To grasp this truly, every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time, and at the same time they exist as individual moments of time. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.
For another interesting book about time, check out The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (which is also about Japanese history and culture). But I liked this one much better.