A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING
By Ruth Ozeki (New York: Penguin Books, 2013, 432 pp., $28.95, hardcover)
From a French Maid Café in Akihabara, the electronic district in Tokyo, the fast-clip banter of a 16-year-old girl initiates a spirited candor and yearning as she proposes to share her last rites in her diary. She begins, “My name is Nao, and I am a time being… A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”
Upon the sandy shore across the Pacific, a tightly wrapped plastic bag, considered flotsam that may be debris from the 2011 tsunami, is found and nearly discarded by novelist Ruth. When its contents — a Hello Kitty lunchbox, containing a diary, handwritten letters, and an antique watch — is discovered, the connection across time is grounded.
In “A Tale for the Time Being,” Ruth Ozeki establishes quickly the intimate relationship between writer and reader, as the fictional character Ruth, whose life mirrors the author, immediately becomes protective of Nao and her quest to record her great grandmother Jiko’s remarkable life as a Buddhist nun. Ruth determines to take in the diary writing as it transpired to infuse Nao’s experience in time and begins to read at a daily pace what she can discern as a single entry through the change in penmanship.
“How cool is that? It feels like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you and you’re reaching back to touch me! … It’s like a message in a bottle, cast out onto the ocean of time and space.”
Busy with translation and researching all the references, Ruth becomes consumed by Nao’s plight and begins to search for any clues on her fate. Intrigue continues to unfold as the life of Nao is laden with the isolation she experiences when bullied at school, the economic stress on her parents from moving from Silicon Valley to Tokyo due to the dot-com bubble burst, and talks of suicide and the “end of time.” While the writing is brazen, a sadness and despair hovers beneath the surface. Her relationship with Jiko is a life buoy and the Zen Buddhism teachings provides a philosophical anchor.
Ozeki succeeds in captivating the reader with clever writing, delightful characters, convincing relationships and spiritual depths. In the ocean between, we experience a message of a time being that connects the U.S. and Japan, and connects us all in the aftermath of the tsunami. We traverse across time, from past to present, and even visit with spirits past in “A Tale for the Time Being.” Ozeki continues to create a colorful existence in her writing and her novels are well worth the wait. While I don’t often read books over and over, this is one that unfolds anew again and again.
Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. Her first two novels, “My Year of Meats” (1998) and “All Over Creation” (2003), have been translated into 11 languages and published in 14 countries. “A Tale for the Time-Being” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and will be published in more than 30 countries. A longtime Buddhist practitioner, Ozeki ordained in 2010 and is affiliated with the Brooklyn Zen Center and the Everyday Zen Foundation. She lives in British Columbia and New York.