2013 Booker longlist: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
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'A time being 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.'
With that definition on the first page and the fact that A Tale for the Time Being ends with six appendices (on subjects as diverse as quantum physics, Schrodinger's cat, Japanese temple names, and Zen Buddhism) as well as a bibliography and a glossary of Japanese phrases, it's clear from the start that this is a book which takes itself seriously, one where the reader is expected to do some work. And this worked for me at the start of the book, but as I read more and more I got the feeling that perhaps the author was trying a little too hard?
Ruth, an American writer of Japanese descent, is walking along the beach near her home on a remote island in British Columbia, when she discovers a well-wrapped package containing the diary of Nao(ko) Yasutani, a Japanese teenager living in Tokyo, as well as other letters. As Ruth reads the diary she becomes more and more concerned about Nao's fate, not only because she assumes that the diary has been swept into the sea by the 2011 tsunami, but also because the diary reveals that Nao plans to commit suicide. Brought up in Silicon Valley, she is facing severe bullying in her new school in Tokyo, where her parents have returned to live after her father lost his job. And so the story continues, alternating between Ruth's life with her husband, a life which to someone from New York City seems sometimes to belong to someone else, and Nao's story in Tokyo. And as Nao tells her own story she also tells the story of her great-grandmother, still alive and well at the age of 104, who was an early feminist and writer in pre-war Japan, and then became a nun after the death of her son in a kamikaze mission in World War II.
When the two strands of the narrative remained separate I had my hopes for this book, but as they begin to come together in the second half I was left with a growing feeling of disatisfaction. The book did not gel into the harmonious whole that I had hoped: rather as the mixture of ideas within the book seemed to be more and more disconnected from each other. So in the end a book with some excellent ideas, but whose execution, for me at any rate, does not wrap them into a coherent whole.
Still, the book gave me many new ideas and I liked it a lot, but as you said, it didn't feel coherent in the end.
I have recently read Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala- a memoire of a woman who lost everything in the 2004 Tsunami-- and perhaps the enormity of her story colored my interpretation of this book as well
I was very taken with the book's premises - the convergence of flotsam and jetsam; the physical and also symbolic realities of the book, the watch, and the transplanted life; the blend of suspense and the reveal; the cultural explanations and the two viewpoints... like other commentators- I found the ending lacking- but I fail to come up with a better idea myself.
The premise grabbed me also, the experience of reading it I was less than impressed with though.
I think Ozeki uses magical realism to reflect a deeper meaning into her narrative.I agree, and I think that she failed. I didn't like it when the magical realism was introduced, but I saw that she was trying to do something, so I was willing to pay attention. She did not achieve either a conclusion or an expectant or mysterious openness at the end. After all, I do not recommend the book, but I don't know that that is real criticism. I think the fact that she didn't make good use of quantum physics or very good use of Zen reality is real criticism. Her achievement with Zen was creditable, but with the perception of a failed book it becomes unimportant.