Book Review: A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth OzekiWhen Ruth picks up a piece of flotsam that has washed up on the beach near her home in British Columbia, little does she know that her life will be changed. For in that package, which at first glance looked liked a jellyfish, is a Hello Kitty lunchbox with a diary, a bunch of old letters in French, and an old watch.

The diary belongs to 16-year old Nao Yasutani, who wants to write the story of her 104-year-old anarchist, feminist Buddhist grandmother. But she ends up writing about her life, the unimaginable ijime (shame) she faces in school, tidbits of Zen wisdom from her grandmother, and the sheer heartbreaking despair of life – both she and her father want nothing more than to commit suicide.

As Ruth is drawn into Nao’s world, she finds herself spending all of her spare time trying to track Nao down. She desperately scrolls through information online to try and find out if Nao or her family feature in the tsunami casualty list; she runs a number of searches to try and corroborate some of the stories from Nao’s diary; and in her quest, she forgets that a decade has passed between the time that Nao wrote the diary and it washed up on the beach near Ruth’s home.

But there are a number of unexplainable phenomena that start occurring as Ruth reads Nao’s diary – strange dreams featuring Nao’s grandmother, the appearance of a Japanese jungle crow, and most alarmingly, vanishing information from Nao’s diary – the last of which is unconvincingly (for me) explained by quantum physics.

Nao’s story of her return to Japan from Silicon Valley, where she spent her formative years, and the bullying she faces in her new school are horrifying. Her father’s despair at being unable to find a job and his many attempts to commit suicide provide a further backdrop of gloom. Into this sorry situation, Nao’s grandmother brings in a breath of fresh air. Her nuggets of Zen philosophy ultimately sustain Nao, and are what really lifts this book to a different level.

Filled with footnotes – mainly to explain some Japanese phrases and concepts – and 6 Appendixes, which deal with everything from the concept of Zen time to Schrödinger’s cat and quantum physics, the book is a meditation on time, on shared humanity and the search for meaning. Even though a few things are contrived and some concepts are unconvincing, it’s a very interesting read. Recommended!

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 Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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