A Tale for the Time Being: What I Thought

This book found me. I didn’t seek it or even come across it by accident. It found me in the first year of my Master’s. It was included in the course material as an example of a rather niche, in media res novel introduction. I could have made note of the techniques used and moved on but for a reason I’ll never know, I purchased the book, second-hand, straight away.

The style of writing, despite hosting a very different character in Nao, I think reminded me of what I’d read in the likes of We Need to Talk About Kevin, as well as the complex voices utilised by Charlotte Roche. It’s something I’ve attempted myself but that I can never quite perfect: that seamless flitting between the first and second-person. Interestingly, all of these voices I’ve read and loved have been female and have spoken to me if not directly, then every so often.

‘Do you have a cat and is she sitting on your lap? Does her forehead smell like cedar trees and fresh sweet air?

                Actually, it doesn’t matter very much, because by the time you read this, everything will be different, and you will be nowhere in particular, flipping idly through the pages of this book, which happens to be the diary of my last days on earth, wondering if you should keep on reading.’

Nao is a teenage girl who has spent most of her life in California, her father a tech-head in Silicon Valley. They lived a pretty comfortable life there until her dad was uprooted from his job, forcing him, Nao and her mother back to a life in Japan. There, in a one-bedroom apartment and on little income, Nao has to learn how to be Japanese in a country she is unfamiliar with.

Her diary entries recall a dark period of school bullying and witnessing her father spiral into a state of depression, until her great-grandmother, Jiko, arrives to take her to a Buddhist temple for her summer vacation.

Meanwhile, we’re introduced via a third-person narrator to Ruth, who happens to find Nao’s diary washed up on the shores of windy West Canada. Ruth obsessively attempts to find the real-life Nao: the 2011 Fukushima tragedy unnerves Ruth and she wants to check on the young girl’s well-being. An odd series of events occurs as Ruth delves deeper into Nao’s diary, convincing her of fate’s existence.

When asked what this book is about, I answered ‘suicide, displacement, childhood, quantum physics, Buddhism, prostitution, family…’ The list could go on, as Ruth Ozeki manages to fit a few lifetimes’ worth of themes into a single book, sometimes but not discouragingly blurring the lines between what is fantasy and what is reality.

To be completely uncritical, subjective and silly, I am still stuck inside this book. I still wonder about the lives of both narrators and desperately try to avoid any research on Ruth Ozeki because so much of me wants everything that happens in these pages to be true. It’s heartbreakingly raw and eye-opening. I could read it over and over and over.


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