A visit to the library the other month landed me with a Japan-related book I’d never heard of (I always love stumbling across surprises like that). Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being had an intriguing premise. A lunchbox washes up on a Canadian beach, filled with the diary of a young Japanese girl. What the reader is initially led to believe is tsunami debris turns out to be something more complex and we unravel the mystery, chapter by chapter, with Ruth, a writer who lives on the island with her partner. As Ruth reads the diary, the story of Nao (the diary’s author) seems to play out as if in real life – her struggle as a returnee after years in America, the horrific bullying she endures at school, her relationship with her 104-year old Buddhist nun great-grandmother. The story jumps back and forth between the two voices and by the end, the reader is drawn into the complicated question of whose narrative really influenced whose.
It’s really hard to write an accurate synopsis for this book without giving it all away, in a sense. The description on the book jacket had me fooled – I picked up this book thinking I would get one type of story and I was treated to an entirely different tome. That’s not saying I was disappointed, but the straightforward “mystery” read I anticipated instead became a lyrical exploration of time and space with myths and and the possibility of multiple realities.
Perhaps I should have looked at the back jacket synopsis as well. 🙂 Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest, a facet of her life which is present in her writing as she delves deeply into concepts revolving around life, death and everything in between. There are numerous passages that reference complex ideas of things like fate and physics and if you’re not prepared to be mentally challenged, this might be a tough book to get through. (Sometimes at night, after an entire day of parenting, I just want some straight-up crime thriller. 😉 ) But I have only read one other book in recent memory whose words were constructed so beautifully that I couldn’t help but keep turning the pages (the other book is the unforgettable All the Light You Cannot See). And even as the author weaves together the stories of Nao and Ruth the character, you start to wonder how much of this story is actually Ruth, the author’s.
Some parts of this book were admittedly difficult to read, especially in regards to Nao’s bullying at school. As a parent, reading about her physical assault and humiliation were incredibly difficult. Suicide was also a predominant thread in the book for multiple characters, and some aspects of Nao’s life in Japan are – without giving anything away – quite dark. But the end of the book provided some redemption in that I felt it ended on a high(er) note.
This is not your typical Japan fiction, but it’s a book that most readers will be thinking about long after they put it down. Worth a read for those who have the time and mental effort to devote to it.