Nao is a Japanese teenager reaching out in time by writing a secret diary. Ruth is the Canadian-American author who reads her book.
Review of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
On the beach of her small Canadian island, Ruth discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox carefully wrapped in plastic bags to protect it from the Pacific’s waves. Inside are a red book bearing the title À la recherche du temps perdu, a stack of letters written by a Kamikaze pilot, and the pilot’s wristwatch.
The book is the diary of a Japanese teenage girl, Nao, and when Ruth begins reading she becomes a part of Nao’s world.
Nao (pronounced Now) calls herself a “time being...someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.” Nao is counting down her last moments; she plans to exit time as her father has twice attempted and as her great-uncle, the Kamikaze pilot, did.
Before Nao leaves, she wants to tell the story of her 104-year-old great-grandmother Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun. However the crux of her diary is her loving but often dismal relationship with her suicidal father. Bullied in school and writing from a cafe that arranges paid dates, Nao tells a tale of unexpected brutality.
Despite the circumstances, Nao writes with humor and curiosity. She searches for what Jiko calls a supapawa (superpower), which will enable her to stand up to her classmates, and she explains Zen Buddhist teachings in modern slang.
Ozeki’s book offers many playful and poignant paradoxes. Up is down and down is up, says Jiko. Ancient wisdom is written in a teenager’s purple ink, and Nao and her father learn about life by watching a death.
Ruth’s role goes beyond that of the reader-in-the-story of epistolary novels. While she lends credibility to magical realist elements, her presence also poses a question: What is the effect of reader on author? Can Ruth reach back in time to Nao, as Nao reaches forward to Ruth?
The Seattle Times calls Ozeki’s book a “work of literary origami.” Folded along the creases of the Pacific and time, the novel brings together seemingly disparate events at points of shared philosophical motifs: Nao’s father and the Kamikaze pilot suffer for their pacifism, and Nao’s existence is as uncertain as Ruth’s missing cat Schrödinger’s.
Ozeki’s captivating book about family, books, philosophy, quantum mechanics, and the nature of time describes the uncertainties of existence with compassion and humor. The tale’s engaging characters will quickly draw you into their absorbing world.