A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING by Ruth Ozeki

Book Quote:

“And if you decide not to read anymore, hey, no problem, because you’re not the one I was waiting for anyway. But if you decide to read on, then guess what? You’re my kind of time being and together we’ll make magic!”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (JAN 27, 2014)

How do a century-old modern-thinking Buddhist nun, a WW II kamikaze pilot, a bullied 16-year-old Japanese schoolgirl on the verge of suicide, her suicidal father, a struggling memoirist on a remote island of British Columbia, Time, Being, Proust, language, philosophy, global warming, and the 2011 Japanese tsunami connect?

In this brilliantly plotted and absorbing, layered novel, one can find the theme in a quote from Proust, quoted by Ozeki:

“In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self.”

Remember these poignant and piercing words, as it underpins all that this book is about. You can catch on immediately that it is self-referential, at least to some degree. The memoirist’s name is Ruth (like the author)–both Ruths have a husband name Oliver and live on a remote island in British Colombia. And both are writers. The Ruth of the novel suffers from writer’s block. She has been trying to write a book of her mother’s last years living with Alzheimer’s, and to illustrate her own feelings about her experience as daughter and caretaker.

One day, Ruth finds some barnacle-encrusted belongings washed up ashore, possibly from the 2011 Japan tsunami and the tidal drifts that deposited debris in their direction. Inside is a Hello Kitty lunchbox, a wristwatch circa WWII, letters in Japanese, a French composition book, and a diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl named Nao (pronounced “Now”) written in English. The diary itself is set inside a hacked copy of Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” (In Search of Lost Time). Proust’s novel is removed, leaving the shell as a cover protecting Nao’s secret journal.

In the meantime, a native Japanese crow has inhabited the island where Ruth and Oliver live with their moody cat, eerily haunting the island with its ke ke ke song.

According to the narrative, the ancient Zen master, Sh?b?genz?, stated, “Time itself is being…and all being is time…In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.”

I was hooked by that time, and for the time…being.

I know that, thus far, I have only quoted great historical thinkers and writers, whose words are enfolded in this shimmering tapestry of a book. However, be assured that Ozeki’s contemporary narrative will both exhilarate and touch you.

“I am reaching through time to touch you,” writes Nao with her purple gel pen.

Ruth decides to hunker down with Nao’s diary, a few pages at a time, each night reading to Oliver and herself. She learns early on that Nao is planning on killing herself after she writes down the life story of her great-grandmother Jiko, the Buddhist nun. As the diary unfolds, it is evident that Nao is also recording the story of her own life. Moreover, she shares the events, as she knows it, of her dead great-uncle, the WW II pilot who was also a philosopher and lover of French literature.

The opening of the book is abstract, unformed, and philosophical, but that only lasts for a few pages. Once the chapters begin, the narrative alternates between Ruth and Nao. I admit to an early concern, that the novel may be a YA-adult crossover, due to the chipper tone of Nao and her indelibly teenage style. But, eventually, as the story penetrates and cross-cuts through characters, the storylines become a piercing symphony. I am confident that you will be moved by not just its warmth, but its luminous beauty.

“In the interstices between sleeping and waking, she floated in a dark liminal state that was not quite a dream, but was perpetually on the edge of becoming one. There she hung, submerged and tumbling slowly, like a particle of flotsam just below the crest of a wave that was always just about to break.”

Along the way, you will learn numerous Japanese words, which are footnoted, and Buddhist concepts, which are woven in seamlessly. I have had too many experiences of overweening narratives exerting Buddhist credo that discharge as shallow power point presentations or pedantic coffee table ideas. Ozeki doesn’t disappoint. With a little magic realism (just a little!), a pinch of Murakami, and a lot of heart, she pulls the threads all together into a radiant tapestry. This book is a gift of love.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 279 readers
PUBLISHER: Penguin Books (December 31, 2013)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Ruth Ozeki
EXTRAS: Guardian Interview 
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January 27, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2013 Favorites, 2013 Man Booker Shortlist, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Japan, Literary, Unique Narrative

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