‘A Tale for the Time Being’ by Ruth Ozeki

Yii-Ling Deng 20 February 2022
Image Credit: Creative Commons licences

There are no two ways about this. You’ll either be extremely intrigued, read further or run far, far, far away. Warning: This book may hurt.

‘I’m a time-being. Do you know what a time being is? It’s someone who lives in time.’

In A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, we’re drawn into two perspectives: the quiet claustrophobic life of Japanese American novelist Ruth, who, like the author, lives in British Columbia with artist-naturalist husband Oliver, and the life of Nao Yasutani, a sixteen year old living in Tokyo. Nao moved back to Japan from Silicon Valley after her dad lost his job, and these two characters are bound together across time through Ruth’s discovery of Nao’s diary bobbing in the waves.

It is through Nao’s diary – the real-time narration of Nao and the narration of Ruth’s reactions as she reads it that we really become closer to Nao and enter inside her mind and share in her refuge, built from those words strewn across those fragile pages. Ambiguity hits us immediately: who was Nao? Is she one of the 2011 tsunami victims, or was her own life the tragedy that she ended herself prior to the event? ‘Nao’ – pronounced ‘now’ – captures the slipperiness of time, of losing it, of finding it, of making and connecting to it. Time is our construct to mould. Ozeki’s novel taps, plays and strikes into our own heartstrings with Nao’s battles against bullying, her worries, her loneliness and attempts to cope with her unemployed and depressed father, largely absent mother, juxtaposed by her anarchist-feminist great-grandmother and the story of her kamikaze pilot son.

As we delve further in the pages of the novel and also in Nao’s diary, we discover that the past, present and future are constantly linked too with the inextricable fate of our two protagonists, Nao’s diary and the discovery of lost letters by the aforementioned son weaving more and more layers of tales inside this novel. Your heart skips a beat: hysterical Nao may be eccentric and chaotic but it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her life as an outsider – at her new Japanese school and in her view of herself, in life.

Is it possible to find a book that covers Japanese funeral rituals, the anatomy of barnacles, origami, quantum physics, memory, physical and metaphorical wounds, buddhist nuns and the second world war? A Tale for the Time Being offers all of this and more. Japanese-American writer Ozeki also tackles the complexities of bi-cultural identities, exploring the nature of identities themselves. As a British-Taiwanese myself, it’s a heartwarming, touching if not melancholy tale that plays a chord with my own conflicts of having bi-cultural identities and living in clashing worlds. A truly gripping, artfully written and inventive read: a book that may not be for the faint-hearted, but a must-read for those ‘time beings’ – those of us who want to slip into the folds of time themselves; in the search for home and contemplating our own humanity.