Let me tell you about this book.
No. It is too much. Let me sum up.
Ruth, an author living on a remote island off the coast of Washington*, finds an odd piece of jetsam: a Hello Kitty lunchbox that contains a Japanese teenage girl’s diary, disguised as Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Much of the novel is in the bright, self-aware, vivid voice of Nao, who begins her diary like this:
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.
Nao starts out to tell the story of her grandmother’s life — Jiko, who is a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun, and a splendid character — but she winds up telling her own. She has a lot to carry. Her father is unemployed and suicidal. She is so horribly bullied at school that I’ve never heard a worse case, and she herself is suicidal, too. (Suicide, and the role it plays in Japanese culture, is a strong theme in this book.) She looks for affirmation in more immediate places than her grandmother can provide, and winds up offering sex for money because she is too numb to say no. In many ways, this book is terribly, deeply sad.
Ruth and her husband Oliver worry about Nao (whose name, of course, sounds like now). As they read the diary in real time, they forget — well, Ruth forgets — that Nao’s now is their past. Ruth researches Nao and her father and her grandmother, desperately trying to help her, trying to understand what might have been her fate so they can reach out to her as she, accidentally, reached out to them. They suffer their own pain and worry on the island, as well, from ecological consequences and worries about memory loss.
And somehow, through intense pain, Nao never quite lets go. She learns about love and prayer and mindfulness from her grandmother. She develops her own voice in her diary. She finds out the truth about her uncle, who died as a kamikaze pilot in World War II, and meets a couple of ghosts. All of it gives her strength. Will it be enough?
The very end of this novel felt a little tacked-on to me, bringing in quantum theory in a way that made sense — fine — but wasn’t well woven-in with the rest of the plot. However, the entire book up to this point, and especially the depiction of modern Japanese culture, was so beautiful and moving that I’m ready to forgive it. I’ve seen several people say that they were much less interested in Ruth’s story than in Nao’s, but I really appreciated Ruth, with her losses that were quieter than Nao’s but still leaving her bewildered and bereft. I thought this was a wonderful book.
*Ruth is an obvious stand-in for Ruth Ozeki herself, and a lot of the autobiographical details coincide.