A Tale For The Time Being was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013. I’ve decided I need to read more ‘good’ books, so I’m trying to read at least one from the list a year. I’m a little late, as the 2014 list is already out, but I finally got my hands on a copy of this book after it caught my eye last year.
A Tale For The Time Being has a slightly unusual format; it’s split between two narratives, one in diary format from 16-year-old Nao, and one in the third person which follows Ruth. Ruth discovers Nao’s diary when it washes up on her local beach, along with a number of intriguing artefacts, all encased safely in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Ruth suspects that the selection is washed-up debris from the 2011 tsunami, but as she begins to read Nao’s diary, she becomes more and more curious about what happened to its writer and her family.
The book opens with an excerpt from Nao’s diary and it hooks you in immediately. Nao’s writing is engaging, intelligent and witty. She is an observant schoolgirl who questions everything and in doing so paints a vivid picture of her immediate surroundings and her life in Japan, with an upbeat, cheerful and frank manner.
From the very first page, Nao hints that something big is afoot, referring to the book as “the diary of my last days on earth” but the reader is left in the dark as to what she could mean. It is only after a few chapters that it becomes clear that this bright, vibrant girl whose words spring off the page intends on committing suicide. Imminently.
As the reader reads and reacts to the diary, so too does Ruth. It adds another layer to the story and I did feel a certain sense of advocacy as Ruth’s feelings reflected my own but, I’ve got to be honest, her parts did tend to drag and dull in comparison to Nao’s. Ruth isn’t particularly exciting and her husband is just downright boring – I had to skip a few of his monologues – they just didn’t bring much to the story for me. (Also, it kind of annoys me that she is a Japanese-American writer called Ruth, just like the author herself, but maybe that’s just me being picky).
Once we understand that Nao intends on taking her own life, we want to know why. She’s so young – she seems so intelligent and self-aware – what could drive someone like her to want to escape this world? As Nao delves deeper into explaining what her brought her to this point, it will all become clear. After having her entire life uprooted, she has been entered into a new Japanese school where she is hounded by bullies who subject her to almost every type of emotional and physical abuse. Her home life is plagued by depression; a black cloud hangs over her family, with the fear of her father’s suicide never far away. The only time in the story Nao really gets any respite is the summer she stays with her great-grandmother, old Jiko, in a Buddhist temple in the mountains.
Every part of Nao’s narrative is spot-on, Ozeki sucks the reader in and doesn’t let go. I felt like I was there with Nao. Some of the parts in her home life and school were harrowing and difficult to read. It is only as she and her father walk up the mountain to Jiko’s temple that I felt a breath of fresh air, a weight that lifted with each step, as Nao found somewhere she could find peace. Through Jiko, Nao learns more about herself and her family than she ever understood – but is it enough to stop her taking her own life?
Ruth Ozeki tackles some big issues in this book, from WWII to the tsunami. But she also examines less tangible concepts, exploring the concept of time, spirituality, dreams and parallel worlds. This is a big, bold book which challenges the reader to question things, to look beyond the conventional. It’s not perfect, it’s got its flaws, but it’s intelligent and immersive; both heartbreaking and uplifting. I can’t even begin to touch on all the myriad themes and aspects in this book. You’ll just have to read it for yourself.