A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
|A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: More than just a tale about a diary washed-up on a beach, this is a charmer of a novel – poignant, enthralling and panoramically eclectic.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 420||Date: March 2013|
|Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd|
|External links: Author's website|
Ruth finds a 'Hello Kitty' bag washed up on the shore of Whaletown, the small Canadian island that she and her husband Oliver call home. As Ruth opens it and begins reading the diary safely protected inside, she learns about Nao, a teenager in Japan. Through her writing Nao becomes real and the tales of her varied life, struggles at school and fascinating relatives compels Ruth to search for her, or at least to discover her fate.
The 2013 Man Booker judges were looking for originality when they compiled the short list, therefore it's not surprising that Canadian/American author Ruth Ozeki's novel was a shoo in. Ruth isn't just a writer, she's also a Zen Buddhist priest but please don’t let that put you off. A Tale for the Time Being is no niche This Flawless Place Between. It's mainstream, covers so many subjects that it's panoramically eclectic (in a good way) and as charming for those of us who love 'literary' as it is for those of us who just like a good read.
The Time Being of the title is anyone who's a being in time, therefore all of us. Indeed, it's not just the title that ensures no one's marginalised; Nao is instantly likeable. As we read her diary with the fictional Ruth, the teenager's youthful exuberance dances off the page but she's also been acquainted with pain. Nao's father suffers from depression and her school days appear extraordinarily cruel to western eyes, yet she's retained a sense of fun alongside the understandable melancholy.
Nao's father isn't the only relative we hear about. Nao is also desperate to tell us about her grandmother, a game old bird who will stay with us as long as the memory of her fascinating and touching wartime ancestor. (I'll leave you to meet him yourself.)
Nao's diary is interspersed with fictional Ruth and Oliver's life. Ruth is a writer (I know what you're thinking: 'Just how fictional is this?') while Oliver is a scientist so there's a creative-versus-factual element of their relationship that complements as well as sparks. (Those who know what to look for will notice some more subtle links with Zen.) Ruth and Oliver aren't just fillers though; we warm to them swiftly as we urge Ruth on, wanting her to find this now-20-something girl and give us a happy ending.
Before we get to the ending (no, no spoilers!) this story bounces through subjects others would be hard-pushed to connect in one volume: the sort of wildlife that rides tsunami flotsam, an island so small that 'AA' (Alcoholics Anonymous) is just called 'A' because everyone knows everyone, Japanese feminist culture and literature, whaling, Proust, rebel fighters… We sit on the magic carpet at the author's feet and are whisked to whichever subjects she wants to show us while we thirstily absorb the information, marvelling at how it doesn't disrupt the narrative.
The book blurb tells us that it will change our lives. Although not a life-changer for me, it was highly affecting and I felt happy and, indeed, privileged to have spent time sitting between Ruth and Nao, becoming acquainted with people I know I'll revisit. Will it win the 2013 Man Booker? I'm rubbish at predictions but my fingers are crossed.
If you enjoyed this and would like to read some more Man Booker nominations, try two more of my favourites: The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris and Unexploded by Alison MacLeod, neither of which got into the short list, unfortunately. (That's me trying not to be bitter!)
You can read more book reviews or buy A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.