A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Publisher: Viking Adult. March 2013
Genre: Literary Fiction
First Line: "Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being."
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I'm very often suckered in by Japanese themes, and A Tale for the Time Being had just the right combination of the contemporary and the historic. The weird and the zen. Not to mention the fantastic and interesting half of the main characters and the story.
Ruth, not the writer but the character, who happens to be a writer (wild coincidence) lives on the coast of Canada and one day finds washed up on the beach a Hello Kitty lunch box. Inside of it holds the diary of a suicidal Japanese sixteen-year-old who wants to document the life of her 104-year-old Buddhist nun grandmother as the last thing she does. Nao's accounts of her life are both riveting and insightful. She goes through a lot -- ijime (a harshly isolating type of bullying that only exists in Japanese schools), a suicidal parent, trips to "maid cafes", and more I don't care to spoil. I loved her story, the mentions of zen Buddhism, and the mystery that shrouds her identity.
My main issue is with the half of the story that isn't Naoko's. Ruth's. Normally books about writers are hard for me to read unless they're done really really well. Like it just feels too easy. A main character actually being the author, with all of the less interesting characteristics of that person left in was almost painful. Her and her husband's pet cat was mentioned a lot. I love cats, but it sometimes felt boring in comparison to how vibrant and interesting Naoko's voice was. At the same time, though, Ruth felt very much like a companion. So generic that I could place myself into her. We had the same reactions to the same parts of Nao's diaries. I experienced what she was experiencing, and that was a sort of surreal reality to exist in. Because of that, I can't hate that she did it. I wanted to, but by the end it worked.
A Tale for the Time Being gets very meta and philosophical, exploring relations between readers and writers, and humans in general, especially over spans of time. Somehow quantum physics gets thrown into there too, but it's done well. Parts at the beginning were slow, but in the last half as Ruth is unraveling the mystery of Nao and Nao's life is spinning more out of control, I couldn't put it down. I definitely enjoyed this book.
"Is death even possible in a universe of many worlds? Is suicide? For every world in which you kill yourself, there'll be another in which you don't, in which you go on living. Many worlds seems to guarantee a kind of immortality..."
"Feelings lap at her edges like waves on the sand."
Outlandishness Rating: 7/10
Japanese culture has a lot of weird in it. Dysfunctional families, ijime, girl gangs, maid cafes, love hotels, etc. That along with the hints of minor magical realism make this a pretty interesting book.