Ruth Ozeki’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted title has been a favorite among BookerMarks members this year. With such a richly layered and intricate plot, it’s difficult not to get sucked into this novel of hope, friendship, and family in the modern world. Split between two narrators, A Tale for the Time Being introduces readers to Nao, a teenage girl living in Tokyo, and Ruth, a writer living on the Pacific coast of Canada. Even though the two have never met, their lives are inextricably connected when Ruth finds Nao’s diary on the ocean shore, carefully wrapped and sealed within a freezer bag. As Ruth reads Nao’s story, she develops a deep kinship and sense of concern for this Japanese girl.
As Nao explains in her diary, she often feels much more American than Japanese because she spent the majority of her life living in California. Due to economic reasons, Nao’s family had to move back to Japan where her brilliant father sunk into a deep and suicidal depression, her mother is preoccupied by her new career responsibilities, and Nao herself is tortured daily by school bullies.
But when Nao goes to stay with her 104-year-old great grandmother (referred to as Old Jiko), her knowledge and understanding of world is forever changed. Old Jiko is a nun who lives in isolation at the top of a misty mountain. While she has more knowledge and wisdom than anyone Nao knows, Jiko is still tortured by the painful memories of her son’s death. Haruki was a WWII kamikaze pilot who died in the 1940s, but to Nao’s family, his legacy is still very much alive. Told through the filter of Nao’s memory and understanding, we slowly piece together her family’s story as well as Nao’s own personal story.
Back in Canada, Ruth is concerned for Nao’s mental health and well-being. Much like her father, Nao exhibits many symptoms of being suicidal, and Ruth is desperate to find the end of Nao’s story. But the more involved she gets, the more perplexing the situation gets, and Nao’s life and story begin to feel more elusive than ever. Weaving together aspects of magical realism, fantasy, historical fiction, and memoir, A Tale for the Time Being is truly a unique and magnetic piece of literature.
As we mentioned in our podcast discussion of this novel, Ozeki focuses on both the vastness and smallness of existence with this novel. Our global environment is connected every day through politics, the internet, and natural disasters, yet through various connections and anomalies, we can often find a great niche of intimacy in a place that otherwise feels vast and out of our control. Somehow, the world often feels both lonely and overcrowded, and it’s challenging for our minds to accept the complexities of such an existence. But through the art of storytelling, Ozeki shows how we can shrink this gap by embracing wonder and the unknown.
With a pulsing rhythm and sense of quiet urgency, A Tale for the Time Being is a sparkling example of storytelling and a well-crafted exploration of relationships, family, belonging, and the flexibility of fates. And despite the staccato, vignette-style of Ozeki’s writing, the novel always feels fluid and rhythmic. The deeper you dig the more thematic wonders you will discover, and this is likely the reason it has captured the attention of the Man Booker judges this year. A novel that so successfully weaves multiple layers of story, plot, history, and interpretation into less than 500 pages is certainly worthy of a Man Booker nod. And keep in mind, the 2013 MBP winner will be announced in only 4 days (Tuesday, October 15), and A Tale for the Time Being has proven to be a very strong contender.
This review was simultaneously published on Typographical Era