I got a review copy of this book through NetGalley. I downloaded several at once – all of them apparently good – and started dipping into them to see which I liked more. This one, Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, grabbed my attention immediately, and I got sucked in. By the end, I was compulsively reading it even while walking down the street.
I started explaining the plot to my brother the other day – a Japanese teenager’s diary of her life in Tokyo, which washes up on the coast of an island in British Columbia, where the narrator Ruth and her husband Oliver live (and is similar in scene to where the real Ruth Ozeki lives). The narrator is named Ruth, like the author of the book, and is also a writer – this time, one stuck for story material. When I was explaining it like that, it sounded pretty dumb (I said so aloud, and my brother agreed). I’m not very good at summarising plot, anyway, so that is probably part of the problem.
This is not a “difficult” book, in terms of style. The writing is quite straightforward and engaging, with two distinct narrator styles – the Ruth character in Canada and the teenaged Nao character in Japan. I was impressed with the style of the diary writing because it could have been pretty stupid… in fact, it starts off possibly too jauntily, and it makes you wonder if this is really a serious book. I thought that Ozeki did a good job of finding a balance between making her teenaged narrator sound “young” and not making her sound stupid. Sometimes she uses slang, but she is clearly educated and smart and thoughtful. I thought that showed a good deal of maturity and respect, on the part of Ozeki. I really liked and empathised with Nao, and found her to be a pretty reliable storyteller – she would correct herself and took a lot of care in the “accuracy” of her portrayal of her own life.
I am a bit more indifferent about the style in the Ruth and Oliver sections. Or the narration about Ruth. On more than one occasion, I found it distracting that these sections are narrated in third person, because the style of the narration would be more likely to be first person for Ruth (we never really know what Oliver is thinking, so these sections would have been more reliable as a first-person for Ruth).
The book deals with lots of heavy subjects: bullying, internet invasiveness, global warming, pollution, native species, loss, depression, prostitution, death, Alzheimer’s, suicide, morality, love, forgiveness, families, ethics in unmanned military tactics, Zen meditation and quantum physics. It’s a lot, but I thought that the book managed to find an amazing balance between the difficult concepts and the lightness of being a human being in a way that gives appropriate weight to weighty things but does not drag the reader into depression.
The mixture of the Zen meditation/Buddhist concepts with the quantum physics basically allows the characters to warp back and forth in time, changing their fates and others’ fates, which gives it a bit of a magical realism + science feel. I liked it, but I imagine that some of that could be a bit off-putting if, say, you actually know something about quantum physics. I liked the combination of weightiness (science) with the ephemeral – the idea that there are some things we can’t explain scientifically, or that we can’t do yet.
After finishing it, I read through others’ reviews. In general, it is getting very good reviews. A few people note that it has a lot of negative stuff going on, and they found it to be too depressing (this was about 2-3 of 100 reviews I read on Goodreads). I can see that point, but I think that the optimism of the characters – there is still something to be done, and that something requires us to both search internally and help others externally – is engaging and, for me, still very positive.
This is not a “big” book – there are some nice ideas in here, and it made me want to start meditating. But there aren’t any big ideas in this, and it throws up a lot of big questions but offers no answers. An example of this is the mention of the pollution and global warming, which on their own could have been distracting – I wanted to quiz Oliver about whether his tiny island life is worthy of his apparent passion for the earth – but who am I to judge? And it would have felt less “real” if Oliver had been some huge activist. This is a book about people living a quiet life, helping others and showing love in real-life ways, and reaching across the world to help when the call comes to them. Is that enough, when faced with all the suffering in the world? I don’t know. This book has a beautiful style, and raises questions without weighing the reader down, and I liked it. So four stars, not five, but still very good.
“Now is usually just me, sitting in some dumpy maid cafe or on a stone bench at a temple on the way to school, moving a pen back and forth a hundred billion times across a page, trying to catch up with myself.” (98)
“Maybe this is what it’s like when you die. Your inbox stays empty. At first, you just think nobody’s answering, so you check your SENT box to make sure your outgoing mail is okay, and then you check your ISP to make sure your account is still active, and eventually you have to conclude that you’re dead.” (127)
“I felt a sense of calm, knowing that all these creatures had lived and died before me, leaving almost no trace.” (263)
“Both life and death manifest in every moment of existence. Our human body appears and disappears moment by moment, and this ceaseless arising and passing away is what we experience as time and being. They are not separate. They are one thing, and in even a fraction of a second, we have the opportunity to choose, and to turn the course of our action either toward the attainment of truth or away from it. Each instant is utterly critical to the whole world.” (324)
“I guess this is it. This is what now feels like.” (341)
“I have a pretty good memory, but memories are time beings, too, like cherry blossoms or ginkgo leaves; for a while they are beautiful, and then they fade and die.” (390)
“Everything in the universe is constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.” (408)