Read the reviews of Ruth Ozeki’s third novel, “A Tale for the Time Being,” and you’ll see a stream of enthusiastic reactions: “Intellectually provocative,” “full of breakthroughs,” “a dreamy, spiritual investigation,” to name a few. Yes, the novel is all that and more, but it is structured in a most unusual way. My own description would be more like “a wild ride,” thrilling as long as you are prepared for its unpredictability.
Ozeki’s tale jumps back and forth across the Pacific to focus on two women. The older of the two is named Ruth, a writer living with her husband, Oliver, on a small island off the coast of British Columbia. (Ozeki is playing with autobiographical fiction here since all facts are true for her, too.) When strolling on the beach after a storm one day, Ruth picks up a piece of trash washed ashore that she discovers to be the carefully-wrapped diary of a Japanese 16-year-old, Nao, who writes that she is chronicling her last days before ending her own life.
Nao’s voice is compelling, if not jarring at first, since she sounds like a debauched Valley Girl. Yet this prolific diarist is a thinker who asks the big questions about life. She has moved back to Japan after her father’s sudden dismissal from his hi-tech job in Silicon Valley where she was happy. Her family life is now calamitous and her school life is a nightmare. “I am reaching through time to touch you” the lonely teen tells whomever finds her diary.
The drama and urgency of Nao’s writing sucks Ruth in, both the uplifting and horrific moments. It seems that these two worlds couldn’t be more different. Ruth’s quiet life is filled with concerns about storms knocking out electricity, the writer’s block she’s experiencing with her memoir and her husband, who regularly expounds on scientific minutiae. Yet we relish the times when we see connections between the writer and the reader.
The strongest section of the book rests in the chapters when Nao writes about her great-grandmother, Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun with a youthful soul and a refreshingly simple view of life and ages of wisdom to offer the troubled young girl. When Nao is describing the summer she spent at Jiko’s temple, Ozeki (a Buddhist nun herself) slows the story down to emphasize the old woman’s teachings—pay attention to your life, your body, the natural world and your loved ones. All we can hope is that some of these beautiful practices help the girl in her troubled life.
This obviously brilliant author has produced a unique and engaging book that will educate and stimulate but is not for the faint-hearted. Ozeki delves into the areas of science, history, philosophy and religion. A Booklist reviewer says, Ozeki “obviously insists on writing what she wants to write and in the fashion she prefers.” I say kudos to Ozeki for the courage to experiment.