As I sit down to write about Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, I’m wondering how to articulate just how much I liked this book. It’s one of the most charming books I’ve read this year, but if I try to explain the plot, it might sound like not much (or too much, if I get too deep). So I’ll try to give you a sense of what it’s like and hope that’s enough to help you see whether this could be a book for you, as it was very much a book for me.
The book centers on a found manuscript, a diary in what looks like a copy of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The diary is written by a Japanese teenager girl named Nao, and it’s her voice that drew me into the book from the start. She begins like so:
My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.
A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid cafe in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future.
Something about her voice here reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s brilliant Behind the Scenes and the Museum, a novel that won my heart almost entirely because of narrator Ruby’s voice. Nao remains a pleasing narrator throughout, even when she gets serious about the horrors in her life. Her father is suicidal (as is she at times), and she’s horribly bullied at school. Her great grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun, is her main source of emotional support, and Nao promises to tell Jiko’s story in these pages. She never quite gets there, but that’s OK. Jiko’s story is not the one she really needed to tell.
The time being who reads Nao’s journal is a writer named Ruth who finds the journal and some other items in a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has washed up on the shore of the isolated Canadian island where she and her husband live. She reads the journal to her husband, one entry at a time, and they wonder how Nao’s journal made its way to them. Was it part of the tsunami jetsam, finally reaching Canada? If so, where is Nao now? Did the tsunami take her, or did she follow through on her plans to take her own life? So as they read, Ruth takes steps to solve the mystery and muses over her own existence on this island, so different from the populated world where she feels more at home.
Nao’s first person chapters and Ruth’s third person ones alternate, and for me, Nao’s were far more compelling. But that doesn’t mean I disliked the chapters about Ruth. I think the provided necessary rest, as Ruth uses her days to meditate over life and whether she’s where she ought to be. She’d rather be in New York, but her husband needs the quiet for his health, and she wants to be with him. So she makes the best of it. Also, Ruth acts out the part of the reader, asking the questions and doing the things that we readers want to do as we read Nao’s story. It’s just that Ruth is actually able to do something.
Toward the end, the book takes some strange turns, with timelines changing and the future altering the past. I had mixed feelings about some of this. On the one hand, I kind of liked the idea of characters reaching for each other across time. But I think the book goes wrong in trying to explain it. Perhaps if I studied quantum physics I’d find that stuff fascinating, but I found the mystery far more exciting than the explanation, which isn’t an explanation at all but a vocabulary for naming the mystery. But that material takes up a very small portion of the book and didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment—perhaps it would enhance yours!