For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Our ninth book is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and the review is written by Lameez Alexander.
When I first heard that we would be reading A Tale for the Time Being, I was not exactly enthusiastic. Who could blame me? With a title like that I half expected the opening sentence to read “A long long time ago in a faraway land”. I knew nothing about the author either, except that she was an ordained Buddhist priest of Japanese descent living in North America. So perhaps the opening sentence would more accurately read “A long long time ago in a faraway land…where everything was zen and peaceful.” Where in such a story would I find the tension, the drama, the gravitas I needed to get through it? I was not feeling hopeful.
And then I read this: “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being.” [emphasis added] My brain did a double flip in excitement. Suddenly I had more questions than answers. What is a time being? Who is this Nao girl? What will happen to her? This is what you want from an opening line, right? – to be willfully ensnared, hook, line and sinker.
As you may have guessed, a major theme of this novel is time, or to be more precise, time travel. Unlike many other fictional stories about time travel, this one is neither set in some futuristic scene nor does it make use of any sci-fi ploys to whisk you back into the past. Instead, the past is made to reach out to the future and the future to the past where they seemingly blend in the present, through you – the reader. The relationship between the writer and reader is thus the second major theme of the book.
But let’s go back to the start. The diary (perfectly ensconced in a pink Hello Kitty lunchbox) of 16 year old Nao living in Tokyo is washed ashore on the other side of the Pacific, possibly as debris from the 2011 tsunami, where Ruth, a novelist (as with past and future, truth and fiction are equally enmeshed), finds it arguably years later. As the reader, we travel with Ruth as she is sucked into the drama of Nao’s past and tries to solve the mystery of the girl’s existence. For her part, Nao does a great job of projecting herself into the future, or Ruth’s present. She calls her diary an anti-blog, “because it’s meant for only one special person, and that person is you.” I get sucked right in too – is she talking to Ruth, or to me?
Nao and Ruth’s lives unfold in parallel and are so closely intertwined that I often caught myself thinking their stories were happening at the same (in the book Ruth makes the same mistake, which adds an interesting twist). Both characters are trying to write but get side tracked by life’s inevitable ups and downs. Nao wants to write about the life of her feminist turned Buddhist nun grandmother (an enchanting character on her own) but finds herself dealing with school bullies and a suicidal father instead. Ruth is suffering from writer’s block, worries increasingly about her future since her mother’s recent death, and becomes obsessed with finishing Nao’s story instead of her own. Or so we are led to believe.
The novel’s exploration of time is based on the ideas of quantum theory – that each event in our lives splits into every possible outcome each of which in turn becomes an alternate reality of its own (according to my lay understanding, at least). If we accepted this theory, we would all, in essence, be living parallel lives. I really liked this idea – I found comfort in the thought that there may be many other me’s out there living out my unfulfilled dreams and fantasies (or nightmares!). Other members in the book club were less blown away. They felt that the idea of parallel lives was overstated and soon grew weary of this thread. Granted the author does go a little too deep into the details of quantum theory later on in the book, which did seem like overkill. Still, it is no easy feat to imbue such abstract concepts with a sense of reality, and I think for the most part, this novel does so effortlessly.
Apart from parallel realities, another interesting theme running through the story, which we only slightly touched upon in the book club discussion, is the notion of duality. In Nao’s bullying, for example, we learn that Japanese people seemingly known for their humility and politeness are equally capable of the most horrific violence. The character of Jiko (Nao’s Buddhist nun grandmother) frequently alludes to the similitude and non-duality of life in her vague and oh-so-zen phrases such as “Up, down, same thing”.
At a deeper level, the novel becomes less a story of different but parallel cultural realities than it is an investigation of the spiritual nature of humanity itself– that we are all one and the same regardless of our differences, and that no one culture or system of meaning has exclusive rights over particular truths or moral ideas. If mysticism, ghosts, and the art of zen is not your cup of tea, then this book probably won’t be either. Of course there are many juicy plot details that I have omitted. So, if you simply enjoy a riveting story, one that hooks you from the start and gets you thinking about things that ordinarily make you uncomfortable, then do yourself a favor and read this book. Because A Tale for the Time Being was meant for you.
Written by Lameez Alexander