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.
Ruth, a writer living on a lonely island in British Columbia, stumbles upon a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has washed up on shore; it probably found its way to the island in the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Inside the lunchbox is a collection of artifacts: letters written in Japanese, a wristwatch, and a journal that’s been written inside a swapped out copy of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time); Proust’s cover provides some camouflage for Nao’s innermost thoughts.
Ruth’s been experiencing writer’s block and finds it impossible to move forward on her memoir. She becomes obsessed with the diary, written by a sixteen-year-old Japanese schoolgirl named Nao. After her father lost his job in the United States, Nao’s family relocated back to Japan. The shame of losing his job and his subsequent inability to find work in Japan sends Nao’s father spiraling into depression, and he attempts suicide several times. It’s doubly hard on the thoroughly Americanized Nao, who is an outcast at school and is subject to extreme bullying. It isn’t long until she too is secretly suicidal.
With her father’s instability, it’s agreed that Nao should go stay with her grandmother for a while. Jiko is a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who is years ahead of her time, and Nao is entranced by her grandmother’s incredible life story and personal philosophies. Her grandmother tries to teach her the concepts of meditation and living in each moment. This is one of the many ways in which Ozeki toys with the concept of time and interconnectedness; Jiko, who has lived for over a century, seems like she’ll live forever; Nao is overwhelmed by time; Ruth is reaching back in time; and the book itself toys with the past, present, and future in the way the chapters alternate between diary entries and Ruth’s life. And those are just the obvious references. The book is filled with references to time (and Proust, and philosophy).
I actually listened to the audiobook version of this. There was a downside to that: the book has footnotes that the audiobook, obviously, must leave out. On the bright side, Ozeki was the one narrating, and she was incredible. For all the painful experiences she’s endured, Nao is actually quite funny. Suicidal, but funny. Her diary is written in the tone of a typical sixteen-year-old girl, and Ozeki voices that sarcastic, somewhat melodramatic humor perfectly. It’s the perfect balance to Ruth’s own personal and professional difficulties. I also loved hearing certain phrases and passages in Ozeki’s fluent Japanese.
A Tale for the Time Being is cleverly nuanced and layered in complex ways. Ozeki is a master, and this is hands-down my favorite book so far this year. It’s that good.
A Tale for the Time Being was published in March 2013 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group. The book was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.