Book Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This post is part of the Reading Writers of Color 2021 challenge hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media’s staff writer and editor, Dan Michael Fielding.

“Hi! My name is Nao and I am a time being.”

The story begins in Japan, as a young girl named Naoko Yasutani sits in a French maid café writing in her journal. Unlike many young girls who might write to themselves, or to the journal as though it were listening, Nao has a very specific audience in mind: you. That is, the person who will later find her journal. She promises to tell the story of her great-grandmother, Jiko, who is a Buddhist nun, novelist, feminist, and anarchist. She explains that her goal is to write this history before she drops out of time. As Nao explains, she doesn’t have long to live.

But the story also begins on the beach of a small island in Canada, when the character Ruth finds a freezer bag washed up on the shore. Its contents are a Hello Kitty lunch box, a watch, a journal in French, letters in Japanese, and Nao’s journal addressed to you. Ruth and her husband Oliver begin to slow process of investigating where the bag has come from. At first they fear the worst: that it was washed out to sea during the 2011 tsunami which hit Japan, and that the owner is now dead as a result. As they read on, however, Ruth begins to doubt this initial assumption. Gradually they draw in others from the small town, and each person provides hints as to the origin of the strange discovery.

There is much to praise about this book. Most impressively, Ozeki spins a marvelous story with characters and setting that feel so remarkably real I had to check several times to make sure this wasn’t, in fact, a true story. (And since it isn’t a true story this would be a great book to read for the March #ReadPOC prompt: a work of fiction.)

Nao, young and inexperienced, begins to detail her family’s move from the United States back to Japan after her father loses his programming job following the dot-com bubble burst. Nao, who has lived in Sunnyvale California all her life, finds it impossible to adapt to Japan. Her father, having lost his livelihood and his relationship with his daughter, is slowly driven to suicidal ideation. Nao’s retelling of the abuses she suffers at school are equal parts matter-of-fact and fantastical. She states plainly the cuts and bruises and scars her classmates inflict, as well as the utter social ostracizing she faces. Although her general response is to retreat deep inside of herself in the face of this abuse, the moments she chooses to retaliate leave Ruth—and the reader—wondering whether Nao is telling the truth.

Throughout the story Nao draws further and further away from her promise to tell the story of her great-grandmother Jiko, but there is hardly any time to be upset. Nao’s own story is just as interesting and complex—although with her depression she is unable to recognize that. During her own self-discovery and her gradual coming-of-age through the teachings of her Buddhist great-grandmother, Nao is able to uncover a family history that leads back to the Second World War. 

Ozeki masterfully blends Nao’s first-person narrative with Ruth’s (and the island’s) third-person reflections. There are moments when even the birds come alive with more character development in a few short sentences than many writers can provide in an entire book. Ruth is desperate to learn Nao’s fate. At first, she fears Nao has drowned in the tsunami. Later, she fears Nao or her father have committed suicide. Although the moments detailed in Nao’s diary happened years priory they carry with them a sense of urgency that must ultimately be resolved by Ruth herself.

The choices Ozeki makes in her storytelling are phenomenal. Take, for example, her choice to sprinkle footnotes throughout the book. Although most readers are used to seeing footnotes only in an academic context, these notes add to the reality of the story. Rather than creating distance between the reader and the words, they seem to draw you closer. The appendices at the end have a similar effect. Ozeki’s choice to interweave Nao’s immediacy with Ruth’s footnotes and considerations years later adds to the sense of mystery and discovery that permeates the book. 

A Tale for the Time Being may not be for everyone. In particular, Ozeki’s handling of suicide is straightforward and imbued with the particular Japanese approach to the subject. There are moments where the cruelty Nao’s classmates expressed were too much for me, and I had to take a step back from reading to gather my thoughts. The story, however, speaks for itself, and I couldn’t stay away for long. In the end I felt relief—even joy—to know how the closely intertwined fates of these characters finally resolved.

Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being immediately draws the reader in with a subversion of expectations built on the very title itself. Each time you begin to feel settled, to feel like you know what’s coming next, you will find yourself proven wrong. But unlike some novels where the twists and turns feel forced and cliché, these were all forecasted far in advance—it was merely that you hadn’t reached a level of understanding to deal with them yet. This book returns to Ruth’s question about the truthfulness of Nao’s story but answers it with the question that the reader should have been asking all along. (And because it’s a wonderful question indeed, I won’t spoil it for you.)

Overall, A Tale for the Time Being is a fantastic read with wonderfully real characters and a resolution that both relaxes you and makes you crave more. I highly recommend picking this one up.

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