Branching from, or parallel to, the world in which I live, does there exist an infinite number of other worlds in which unbeknownst to me, I (other versions of me?) also live? A Tale For The Time Being asks you to consider this question, and others like it. If that sounds a turn-off, then I’d nevertheless urge you to give it a try, so you can get to know the two main characters, Nao, and Ruth.
Nao, whose name is pronounced now, is much concerned with time, as befits a time being - which, she explains, “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.” This surely raises the immediate question: what about ghosts? Ok, ghosts aren’t living, but, if they exist, do they exist in time? Since one of the characters in Nao’s story is, in her present, a ghost, this is a question you get to ponder as you continue further into the novel. Nao is a Japanese teenager, living in Tokyo, but wishing she were still in California, where she spent her childhood. Her parents have effectively zoned out on her, she is bullied both at school, and on the internet, her life is spiralling downwards until her great-granny steps in to save her. This wise old great-granny is a Buddhist nun, of 104, whose only son died on a kamikaze mission during World War Two – he is the ghost Nao later encounters, or imagines she encounters.
Meanwhile Ruth is a Japanese-American novelist living with her eco-arty husband on an isolated Canadian island. You, the reader, seem to be invited to consider whether Ruth bears a close resemblance to Ruth Ozeki, the author of A Tale For The Time Being, but I decided to ignore this question, as distracting. Ruth (the character) finds Nao’s diary in a package washed up on the beach near her home. The package may have been ripped into the Pacific by the 2011 tsunami. Ruth reads Nao’s diary. As she reads, she considers everything from the relationship between the writer and the reader, to the nature of time, to our relationships with our own histories, our families’ histories, and world history, to Zen Buddhism, to quantum physics, to the role of the internet in contemporary life, to the nature of bravery, and so on and so forth.
Ozeki’s language ranges from teenage-slangy, in Nao’s diary entries, to dryly academic, in the footnotes and appendices she unconventionally includes, to evocatively poetic in her descriptions of nature, and of Buddhism. Her characters grab you; all are moving in their various predicaments; they all matter. The novel has a great sense of contrasting places, and cultures. Tokyo is captured in all its gaudy craziness; a Buddhist nunnery feels mossily serene; the claustrophobia of a Canadian island seemed very real to me.
All in all this is a fantastic novel, and one I highly recommend.
If you have read it please post with your opinions.