In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine. Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
Can you imagine? I couldn’t resist borrowing this book, even though I swore I wasn’t going to borrow any library books. But hey, I’m on bed rest and I felt like I deserved a little something special. And boy is this book special!
Ruth Ozeki’s A Talefor the Time Being is a treasure, one of those rare books that is so multi-faceted that as soon as you finish it, you know you could reread it and discover new things. There are layers of contemporary culture overlapped with philosophy. The two stories—Nao’s and Ruth’s—weave together. Nao’s narrative is beautifully written, in a voice that is clear and present, while Ruth’s is told in the third person, affording the reader a necessary emotional distance because Ruth, herself, is mostly disconnected from her own life. That is, until she finds Nao’s journal and begins reading it.
There is a surprising subtlety in what the author accomplishes. Nao’s name, of course, when spoken, sounds like the English word now. In one of Ruth’s chapters early in the novel, we learn that “in Japanese, Ruth is either pronounced rutsu, meaning “roots,” or rusu meaning “not at home” or “absent.” Although Nao’s intention in writing her journal is to share her great-grandmother’s story, mostly she uses the blank book as a diary, writing about her own “now” and Ruth, the reader of her diary, is both rooted where she is while feeling homeless. Is it any wonder that she, of all the people who might have found the lunchbox, should find it, washed up on shore?
I know I missed so many other nuances as I was reading. For a while, I couldn’t put the book down but then things happened in the real world that felt too close to some of the emotional turmoil I was reading on the page and I found myself avoiding it because the characters made me feel too deeply.
The characters made me feel so deeply. I wanted to take them all, each flawed, fragmented one of them, and hold them close. I didn’t want their story to end and yet I wanted them all to have a happy ending.
And I don’t even especially like happy endings!
This novel is not easy to read because it demands a focus that most novels do not make upon the reader. To appreciate how themes and experiences are echoed from one storyline to the next, it is necessary to remember so much. I repeat, I know I missed a lot. It is no wonder this book was short listed for the Man Booker Prize. With so many allusions, so many layers, this novel lends itself to book groups, literary analysis in a college classroom, and definitely merits being read time and time again. Just wonderful.