In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying, but before she ends it all, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in a ways she can scarcely imagine.
Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
What I Liked
I gotta say, this book really surprised me. For the first third of the book, I was convinced I would hate it. A book that vascilates between the perspectives of a semi-suicidal teenager and a depressed woman in mid-life crisis mode is a pretty hard sell for me, and for a good portion of the book, that’s all it felt like. But the promise of something more, of learning about this enigmatic anarchist/feminist nun, of understanding Nao’s weird-ass family, kept me going, and I am SO thankful I stuck with it.
A Tale for the Time Being is, at it’s heart, an incredibly subtle dissertation on the existence of the self within time, of the meaning of existing and connecting with those around you. It is a meditation of death and mindfulness, of principles and surrender. The thing is, it doesn’t really read that way. As the book progresses, the seemingly inane account that Nao provides of her life slowly becomes more complex and takes on a wealth of meaning and depth despite the simplicity and accessibility of the prose. This is one of those books that I finish and think, “Wow, I wish I could write that way.” I can’t imagine the amount of planning and thought that Ozeki must have put into this book to weave such a seamless but surprisingly sneaky treatise on humanity and what it means to live and die.
The characters in this book are awesome, raw and real and rather remarkable in their own way. As I read, I viscerally reacted to them as if they were people I knew and was dealing with in my own life; I was truly frustrated, confused, sympathetic, annoyed, and supportive of them without even realizing how seriously I was taking them.
What I Didn’t Like
All that being said, let me be clear about one thing: A BOOK THIS AWESOME SHOULD NOT BE SO HARD TO GET INTO. It was work reading the first half of this book. Like, “I hate this book so much I don’t even care that my cat is chewing on the pages while I read” work. If I hadn’t been really excited to go to a book club that had selected this book, I would have quit. Here’s why:
In the beginning, Nao is really annoying. Maybe that’s personal to me, because she awoke in me a shame of ever being a teenager because teenagers are dumb. But also she just didn’t make sense to me. The way she handled her bullying and her family and the way she interacted with the world were, at first, totally unrelatable.
Also, and this didn’t change even when I grew to love the book, Ruth is a character I couldn’t get on board with. Maybe it’s because of my age and lack of life experience, but the sections of the book told from Ruth’s perspective were depressing, not in a make-you-think way but in a really annoying get-over-it-already kind of way. While it’s kind of fascinating that this book is part fiction, part fictionalized memoir, reading about a rainy, lonely island full of nosy people, a marriage that seems like the definition of easy-is-better-than-right, and an aging author who hates her own memoir just didn’t do it for me. However, I’ll say that the middle-aged women in my book club were much more sympathetic to this character, so it might just be a matter of age perspective/empathy.
Finally, I got very frustrated with the fact that frequently dangled dream of learning more about the anarchist/feminist nun was never actually satisfied. For me, that’s the whole damn reason I even bothered with the book, and even though I ended up liking it anyway, I may never get over the disappointment I felt when I turned the last page and still didn’t know jack-shit about the feminist anarchy of early twentieth century Japan. Jiko was by FAR the coolest character, and to learn so little about her was heartbreaking.
This description probably seems kind of confusing, because I hated this book for long enough to have bad things to say about it, but ended up loving it so much that I want everyone to read it. There’s really not much of a way for me to explain the details of what I mean without giving away the magic of this book. All I can say is that if you decide to undertake this book, persevere; you will not regret it.
About the Author
Ruth 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. Her most recent work, A Tale for the Time-Being (2013), won the LA Times Book Prize, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, and has been published in over thirty countries. Ruth’s documentary and dramatic independent films, including Halving the Bones, have been shown on PBS, at the Sundance Film Festival, and at colleges and universities across the country. A longtime Buddhist practitioner, Ruth was ordained in 2010 and is affiliated with the Brooklyn Zen Center and the Everyday Zen Foundation. She lives in British Columbia and New York City, and is currently the Elizabeth Drew Professor of Creative Writing at Smith College.