I’m not sure where to begin.
This is one of those novels that you finish and look around, blinking, just a little stunned that you’re no longer in the author’s world. If you pick up this 2013 Man Booker shortlisted title, I promise that you will feel submerged by the tale. You won’t be the same when it’s complete. You’ll want it to win the prize.
I’m sure you’ve heard what this novel is about. A 16-year old girl in Tokyo starts a journal, and pens an unflinching look at her life. A writer on an isolated Canadian island finds that journal, along with other items, on the shore near her home. By reading this teen’s heartbreaking story, the writer, named Ruth, breathes life into this lost soul across the ocean. The Japanese girl, Nao, is suicidal. Her home life is a disaster. Her school days are packed with the most inhuman classmates your mind can fathom. Her only solace is her darling 104-year old great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist Monk who sweetly and patiently shares her benevolent wisdom. As the story of Nao’s life unfolds in her journal, Ruth slowly but surely becomes frantic in her wish to help. She wants to know if Nao is all right. But how? Was this journal swept to Ruth’s shore by the 2011 tsunami? How can she know if Nao finds help? Finds support? Will Nao find her own “Super Power” with the help of her great-grandmother? Most importantly, is Nao alive?
There’s only one thing that Ruth can do. She must keep reading.
Incredibly, A Tale For The Time Being encompasses bullying, loneliness, Zen Buddhism, writer’s block, the afterlife, War, Alzheimer’s, the environment, the metaphysical world and quantum physics. You might reread that list, thinking “that can’t be right – how many books did Elizabeth actually read here?” But it does cover everything I’ve listed. And all of this is masterfully shared by the author.
It’s been awhile since I’ve jumped into a story with this much emotion. No – I didn’t jump in – I did a cannonball. This Shortlisted novel will have you gasping for air. It seamlessly moves back and forth from Ruth’s life to Nao’s, while simultaneously leading you down a path of enlightenment. You’ll come away with a renewed faith in the power of the human spirit, and dare I say that you’ll want to crack down on school bullying? My guess is that you will.
I must warn you though, that there are portions of this novel that are not easy to digest. On more than one occasion, I listened to the story with a wince. But as raw as this novel can be, the truth is that there’s no escaping the truths that it shares. From Nao’s experiences as a teen to the unwavering look back to her great uncle’s time as a kamikaze pilot during the war, you will not come away unscathed. It will be difficult, but you’ll be a better person for hearing their stories.
What’s remarkable about this novel is that its spirit reaches through the muck and hurt, and presents a bright spot of hope. You will not finish this book with sad or resentful feelings. After reading the stories of Nao and Ruth and their families, you’ll realize that not only is everything real, but it is also all linked. Because what simmers underneath this tale is a mystic force that you’ll wonder about long after you’ve left the last page. It’s the shadow you thought you saw, but upon looking directly, could no longer find. You know it’s there though, and you believe in your heart that it’s watching over you.
People touch people. We are all spinning on the same planet. Some of us are trying to “bully a wave.” Others are trying to understand how to live in harmony with the rough water. No matter your background, this is a novel that is worth your time. It’s something that I believe that I will revisit one day. And when I do, I can’t wait to hear Jiko’s words with fresh ears.
If you have the opportunity to listen to the audiobook version of this novel, please jump at the chance. The words are read by the author herself, and her narration is perfect throughout.
4.5 stars for A Tale For The Time Being.