Ruth Ozeki’s third novel, A Tale for the Time Being (March 2013), had just about everything to satiate my eclectic whims. Told in alternating chapters in two locations and times, Ozeki weaves history, Zen philosophy and mysticism, intrigue, natural science, and psychological drama into a captivating story that touched my heart, piqued my curiosity, and stirred my soul.
In an earlier time, before the March 2011 earthquake/tsunami, fifteen-year-old Nao Yatsutani sits in Fifi’s Lonely Apron, a Japanese French maid’s café, writing in her diary. Its cover title is Ắ la recherchedu temps perdu by Marcel Proust and its content is replaced with blank pages. Nao writes about being bullied, her suicidal father, and her 104-year-old great-grandmother, Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun.
In the present time, Ruth, a novelist, finds a plastic freezer bag cast up on the small Canadian island where she lives with her environmentalist husband, Oliver. Inside is a Hello Kitty lunchbox stuffed with letters written in French, a watch, and Nao’s diary. Ruth is very quickly caught up in Nao’s life. As she and Oliver try to come to terms with Nao’s revelations and plan to commit suicide, Ruth becomes obsessed with saving Nao, forgetting that they are in different places and times. Or are they?
This novel was more complicated than I expected. On one hand, it is a straightforward narration tinged with a bit of science fiction. On the other, it is a dark treatise about suicide and death. Yet, it is so full of life: Nao, Jiko, Ruth, Oliver, and even the flora and fauna and quirky residents that inhabit the island. Ozeki deftly depicts mundane daily life details while skillfully paralleling WWII, 9/11, and the 2011 tsunami disasters with individual calamities, poignantly illustrating how global tragedies affect each one of us, regardless of where/when they occur and where/when we are.
I enjoyed Ozeki’s versatile style of writing and clever interlacing of themes and protagonists. This is a story read within a story, read within another story, each in which time is of the essence. People’s lives in one time cross other lives in other times, and cross once again. As time curves and twists in and around itself, Ozeki’s complicated characters change the past in the future and alter the future in the past, all within the present. Time is both now and then, twisting into knots and then straightening out again. Even the title is a triple-entendre. Very Zen.
This novel was an intense read. I had to be in the mood for its intellectual and emotional challenges. However, once immersed, I could not put it down. A good, strong, lasting read for mature audiences only, A Tale for the Time Being compelled me to suspend all belief and reality, except for the intriguing ones between its covers.
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