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.