A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

Here is a book I purchased for my mother’s birthday although I had not read it and I had read very few if any reviews of it at the time of purchase and I didn’t read it first. I got it for her only on the basis of the short excerpt NetGalley provided in their “Buzz Books” sampler. That is how much I love the narrative voice of Nao Yasutani. A very very lot.

I’m leading with that because the synopsis of this book would not have induced me to read it. One of the two lead characters is — like the author — a writer called Ruth who has a husband called Oliver. They live on a small Canadian island, and one day a package washes up on the beach — Ruth presumes from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Well-wrapped to protect it from water damage, the package contains two diaries, some letters, and an old watch, all inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. One diary is in French but the other — disguised as a Proust novel — is in a teenager’s purple-pen rounded English cursive. It is the diary of a teenager called Nao who is planning to kill herself but wants first to write the life story of her great-grandmother, a radical feminist turned Buddhist nun following the death of her son in World War II.

When writing about this book, Vasilly said there was something about it that felt really special. I felt just the same, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the whole book. There were times, certainly, when it felt like Ruth’s sections of the books were proceeding by rote — she’s interested in the diary, she’s trying to find Nao in real life, she’s talking to her husband about Nao’s life — and I was impatient to get back to Nao. But as the book went on, and Ruth’s life on this island became more fleshed out independent of Nao’s story, I was able to enjoy both sections of the book about equally.

This was helped, of course, by the increasing sadness of Nao’s life, which at times it was a relief to escape from for a little while. Although Nao tries to talk about her great-grandmother, Jiko, she is frequently sidetracked into stories of her own difficulties. Her father was fired from his Silicon Valley job when the dot-com bubble burst, and Nao, who thinks of herself as American in many ways, has never fit in with her Japanese schoolmates. She is brutally bullied in school (really, it gets pretty upsetting), and at home her father is becoming increasingly depressed over his inability to provide for his wife and family. Nao is terrified that her father will kill himself, and her fear expresses itself in anger with him.

Though Nao’s story is tragic, there kept being moments of light that saved it from being too much for me. Nao’s voice, as I’ve said, is captivating and warm and lovely. And old Jiko is a wonderful, wonderful character. She is just the right combination of mystical and down-to-earth, and there’s never any doubt why Nao admires and loves her so much. For instance, this, when Jiko has asked Nao if she feels angry.

“Of course I feel angry,” I said, angrily. “What do you expect? It was a stupid thing to ask.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “It was a stupid thing to ask. I see that you’re angry. I don’t need to ask such a stupid thing to understand that.”

“So why did you ask?”

Slowly she turned herself around, pivoting on her knees, until finally, she was facing me. “I asked for you,” she said.

“For me?”

“So you could hear the answer.”

I just loved that.

As well, Ozeki has a knack for keeping you invested in characters you might be inclined to write off or stop thinking about. I was as frustrated as Nao was with her father, and thinking many critical thoughts about him, and then Ruth found a posting about suicide on the internet, which she suspects was written by Nao’s father:

Recently I am reading some philosophical books written by great Western minds all about the meaning of life. Those are very interesting, and I hope I will find some good answers there.

I don’t care for myself, but I am afraid my attitude is unhealthy for my daughter. At first I thought I should commit suicide so she will not feel shame on account of my failure to find a good job with big salary…Now I think I must try to stay alive, but I have no confidence to do so. Please teach me a simple American way to live my life so I do not have to think of suicide ever again. I want to find the meaning of life for my daughter.

I got all choked up.

Finally, the end. Ah the end. How I loved it. This is the sort of ending that will not please everybody, but it greatly pleased me. It has a quality of semi-deniable magic, which — given the slightly magical feel of the book in the first place — did not feel out of place to me. It’s also an ending with some ambiguity to it. We don’t really find out what happened to Nao, but the book ends on a note of hope. I like a hopeful ending. It doesn’t feel like a cheat to end a sad book on a hopeful note.

If I had to sum up the reason I loved this book, apart from Nao’s really wonderful narrative voice, I would say, I guess, that I admire a book that can look at sadness and still feel hope. I admire a book that suggests — even in the midst of sorrow — that all systems tend towards love.

I received this free e-book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

  • I just finished reading this novel, and didn’t like it as much as you did, but I think that’s mainly because I liked her first two novels so much and had high expectations for this one. I also don’t like it when novelists try to make metaphors out of scientific concepts. You’re right that she is good at endings.

    • Oh, well, I haven’t read anything else by her. I’m not even sure I want to — I liked this a lot, but it’s not the type of thing I tend to like.

      (I do like it when novelists try to make metaphors out of scientific concepts. I think I do…what’s another example of that?)

      • I can’t remember the other examples because I didn’t like the books…There was a whole slew of novels referring to and simplifying down the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in the late 1980’s. Lately it’s all Schrodinger’s Cat and now quantum physics.

  • I’m glad that you liked it so much 🙂 I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending, but I am so with you on the characters and the heartbreak of the little pieces that we get of Nao’s father’s story in his own words.

    Also, significance of Nao’s name? Nao/now? Am I overthinking this?

    • I don’t think you’re overthinking it at all!

      Also, what didn’t you like about the ending?

  • Amy @ My Friend Amy

    ah! I have this and really want to get to it. The positive reviews I’ve read make me feel more and more eager to get to it!

    • Hooray! I hope you like it!

  • zibilee

    This is one that I have as well, and you’ve totally made a case for reading it soon. Honestly, I didn’t know that the prose was so powerful, and that it was a sad book built with threads of hope in it. I also like that it ends with a little ambiguity. Sometimes it’s fun to sit and dream up different scenarios for books that end in that way. This was an excellent review, and I eager to grab it off the shelf and get to it. It just sounds so poignant.

    • Yay, because I think you might like it. I don’t feel as certain that you will like it as I do that you will like The Mercy of Thin Air.

  • (I think Nao/now is definitely a thing. The little fish drawings/imagery punch that home.) I am still reading this (it’s going rather slowly for me, although OF COURSE I have read the ending) and I agree that there is something special about it. It’s my opinion that the “special” quality has to do with the way time flows, slows, sputters, flies, in this book. It’s a tale for the time being, and time is such a huge “character” in this book. It’s always hiding in the pages, in the characters, in the overarching situation between Ruth and Nao, and everyone, really. I’m so impressed with how Ozeki manipulates time – I’ve never read a book like this one. It IS moving slowly for me, and I think it’s because, like Ruth, somehow I am being forced by the writer to read at HER pace instead of mine. Too weird a way of expressing it? Thoughts? Did it affect you that way at all?

    • Huh. I did not have that experience at all. BUT I did like it a lot and I want to reread it several times. It’s special! I still think it is really special.

  • I have this one! I wasn’t too much looking forward to it but now I really am. I appreciate how much you loved it and will definitely bump it up on my pile. 🙂

    • Do! It’s such a unique and amazing book!

  • Oh! I wouldn’t have thought I’d want to read this, but now I do!

    • Yay! I hope you like it! It’s really wonderful.

  • Yours is the second really positive review I’ve read about this, and really makes me want to read it – your last comment, about the idea “that all systems tend towards love” — that pushes this one a little higher on my TBR list, I think.

    • Aw yay. It really is wonderful and I hope you love it.

  • Yay! You enjoyed this! 🙂 I’m so happy. I keep trying to think of other books with a similar tone and I come up short. Jiko is such a wonderful character.

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  • Jenny

    Ruth Ozeki is super cool.

  • Joan

    Just finished it last night….. loved the story, and yes the ambiguous ending sort of disappointed me… yet how else would you really finish the story! I picked this after listening to a review on CBC…. and it did live up to the commenter’s viewpoint. Will have to add Ruth Orzeki’s other works!!! OH … and I NEVER read the end before the end. Did that as a child and found it tended to ruin the rest of the sory@

    • Gin Jenny

      Fair enough! I ALWAYS read the end before the end actually comes — not doing so often ruins my reading experience. Unusual but true. 🙂

      I loved the ambiguous ending, and I especially loved the weird craziness of Ruth being able to interfere in Nao’s life.