Winner: The Kitschies - Red Tentacle novel award 2013
"Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you."
Ruth discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of her beach home. Within it lies a diary that expresses the hopes and dreams of a young girl. She suspects it might have arrived on a drift of debris from the 2011 tsunami. With every turn of the page, she is sucked deeper into an enchanting mystery. In a small cafe in Tokyo, 16-year-old Nao Yasutani is navigating the challenges thrown up by modern life. In the face of cyber-bullying, the mysteries of a 104-year-old Buddhist nun and great-grandmother, and the joy and heartbreak of family, Nao is trying to find her own place - and voice - through a diary she hopes will find a reader and friend who finally understands her.
Weaving across continents and decades, and exploring the relationship between reader and writer, fact and fiction, A Tale for the Time Being is an extraordinary novel about our shared humanity and the search for home.
©2013 Ruth Ozeki (P)2013 Canongate Books Ltd
"Bewitching, intelligent, and heartbreaking... Nao is an inspired narrator and her quest to tell her great grandmother's story, to connect with her past and with the larger world, is both aching and true. Ozeki is one of my favorite novelists and here she is at her absolute best." (Junot Diaz)
"A Tale for the Time Being is a timeless story. Ruth Ozeki beautifully renders not only the devastation of the collision between man and the natural world, but also the often miraculous results of it. She is a deeply intelligent and humane writer who offers her insights with a grace that beguiles. I truly love this novel." (Alice Sebold)
"Ingenious and touching, A Tale for the Time Being is also highly readable. And interesting: the contrast of cultures is especially well done." (Philip Pullman)
“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”
This book is a beautiful concept under a masterful narrative. The 2 narrating characters (not the reader) lives touch in a meaningful way, although they will never meet.
An American novelist, Ruth, finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach of the island she lives on in Canada. It contains the diary of Nao (a bullied teenager in Japan), some letters and a watch. A lot of the story is the diary, where Nao reveals the secrets she is sharing with no-one else.
The other half of the book is Ruth's attempt to to find out more about Nao and her family. Nao appears to be in danger. While Ruth & her husband wonder whether the lunchbox might have washed across from Japan in the drift following the 2011 tsunami, it's also clear that the Nao's bullying & her father's attempted suicide is leading her to seriously contemplate her own suicide.
Buddhism, western philosophy & environmentalism are some of the themes that flow throughout this beautiful creation, but most of all it is about being now. It is this that makes this book something you want to read in one sitting. And what makes you want it never to end.
Booker short listed, this is an exceptional piece. Get it, you will love it. It has found it's place among my all time favourites & I am sure it will be the same for many other readers.
This is the first review that I've felt compelled to write. If you listen to one book this year - make it this one!
I am amazed that this book does not have hundreds of reviews of praise. I kept thinking that the reader seemed to have such a deep insight into the characters - it was only when I listened to part 3 did I realise that it was read by Ruth Ozeki herself. It definitely adds another layer to experience.
I loved her Year of Meat - this book is even better. As before Ruth Ozeki combines fact with fiction making it more than simply a story. Listen to this book - or read this book. Or even better do both - you won't be disappointed.
When I first heard about this book, I wasn't convinced. A diary of a Japanese schoolgirl washes up on a beach and a middle-aged author interweaves it with her own life on a Canadian Island? It did not sound like my thing.
I'm so glad I didn't listen to my first reaction and gave this book a try. Listening to this book is a real experience. I knew I was hooked when it was 3am and I was still lying in bed in the dark, unable to press pause. There is nothing maudlin or predictable about this story, and there are no dull characters who you feel like you just have to get past to get to the ones you like. There is terror, tragedy, history, family and quite a lot of humour in this book. No wonder it's been long listed for the Booker.
And the narration fro the author is spectacular. After listening, i can't imagine how they could have got anyone else to narrate this unique and wonderful book.
Give it a chance, you won't regret it.
Three words? Truth, time, tears.
I cannot name one character and say he or she was a favorite. The old grandma I feel I did not get to know well and the mothers are a little unclear and fogy. But still all equally important,, and made the story.
She, Ms. Ruth Ozeki read all character equally good, I hope she reads more book as well as her own and maybe she has?
I don't know. Is this a story of two parallel worlds or times. Is it a story of her self. Is this a story of what??? Now I am writing and now I am not and then what??
Beautiful story, wonderfully read. Thank you.
Avid reader and journalist deploying my pen in the service of this planet's visionaries.
Beautiful, precious book. A real and brave story but so gemlike, shining with wisdom and humility. Amid the mingled stories of two women, a teenage girl writing about her life being bullied at school in her diary and and middle-aged ex-New Yorker suffering writer's block, are so many ideas and themes: age, fate, Japanese Zazen practice, suicide, war, quantum physics, and honesty ... All carried along. beautifully in the powerful and authentic voices of the young woman and her older reader.
The author's reading voice is mesmerising.
You'll love this story. Like all beautiful things, it is an endless surprise.
Beautifully read book which stays with you. The story is different and compelling.
"Far more interesting than expected."
When I read the description of this book, it sounded like a "chick" book of little consequence but it caught me from the first. Two lives apparently unrelated yet somehow they merge in a completely convincing way. Yes, it is about a young girl's diary being read by an older woman with issues of her own and yet its far more interesting than this appears.
Ruth Ozeki skilfully and subtly entwines several lives together until you completely believe in them and care about what is happening to each. The girl's name, Nao is pronounced "Now" and there is delicate play on the meaning and sound of her name which eventually catches one's attention. Ruth captures Japan's ambience and culture of Now/Nao and strangely also of WWII, of Buddhist life, of quantum physics, of a remote corner of Canada, of internet reality, its all very complex and yet gently held together.
Ruth narrates her own book and her natural Japanese pronunciation adds very much to the authenticity and veracity of her brilliantly crafted characters. As someone who has never been to Japan, I almost believed I would recognise the girl's father, see and smell the school toilets, hear the temple drum in the mountains, feel the humidity, smell the cheap cigarettes, taste the oysters, feel the strength of the storm, feel Pesto's feline body under my hand while he sat in the co-pilot's chair.
This is a book that can be listened to several times without becoming boring or stale and I certainly will listen again.
Ruth has devised an unusual, highly imaginative structure to her story which works amazingly well. I congratulate her and would recommend this book to anyone interested in an author who brings her characters to life so effectively that you think you could and should Google them!
"All the worlds alive"
A novel that sends you back to check out whether Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit would have been available to a non German speaking Kamikazi pilot in training in Tokyo in 1943 has certainly delivered on intellectual stimulation and this is just one of the many satisfactions in this new work from a new to me author. I found the narrative from all the perspectives - modern Canadian author, young Japanese diarist, letter writing uncle and corresponding father and Californian college professor - beautifully contained and conveyed.
The writing was skillful and disciplined throughout but never appeared laboured. The considerations were fresh and new and the very contemporary setting, pitched against the Fukushima Daiichi events on 11th March 2011, brought an immediacy to my reading this in November 2013 when the events referred to in the narrative had so obviously been laid out earlier in the same year.
A story that stole my attention from start to finish, a voice I was always ready to listen to and a place where I lived alongside the characters, Ruth Ozeki concerns herself with the process of writing, reading and experiencing the sharing of stories and lives - hugely enjoyable and well recommended.
"Thoughtful and haunting"
Contrary to a review I read, I found the story and characters difficult to engage with at first, I but I am so glad that I persevered. This is a complex and thoughtful story that does not exactly unfold, it felt more like life ripped apart with all the gore of the darkest sides of human nature exposed. It is a sickeningly real yet unreal tale, twisted around in time and perspective. We are reading a diary of a Japanese school girl through the eyes of a stranger who tries to anchor the story in her own world by researching the author. As the tale gets darker and nastier we get to step out of the horror of the moment as an observer in time to catch a breath before the next catastrophic reveal.
"A wonderful book"
Contemporary, relevant, captivating
I loved that this book gave me an insight into contemporary Japan. I felt empathy with both the female characters. It kept me gripped even though I only listened to it in short bursts.
"Compelling and fascinating."
Because the audiobook is read by the author you really get the authentic characterisation and even the fairly complicated and ethereal parts of the story are given gravity.
The telling of the story involved lots of historical and cultural references which added colour and weight.
Many of the anecdotes made me giggle but the parts involving the sea soldiers training had me walking along the street with tears streaming down my face. The telling is not in the least sentimental but rather gut wrenchingly honest and at times shocking. History's ugly truths which so often are swept under the rug.
This book will stay with me for a very long time. I have long had a fascination with Japanese culture and this book nourished that whilst also leaving me with more questions than before!
"It was OK"
This books starts off very well but then it sags. And it sags some more, until you start looking at the time and wondering how long you have left. It's not unpleasant and the author/narrator certainly does a superb job with the delivery, but you have to be a pretty patient reader to appreciate it. Still, all the details about the Japanese culture were interesting to discover and those alone could keep you motivated to carry on. There are also some nice musings on time and life, war and death.
"An enigmatic tale for modern beings"
Refreshing, enigmatic, modern
I enjoyed the diary format, giving us an intimate portrayal of the life of a Japanese teenager. It didn't flinch from exposing the cruelty of children, and the eccentricities of modern Japan, juxtaposed with the wisdom and calmness of a mountain dwelling Buddhist nun. Japan is a place of extreme contrasts and this book brought that out beautifully. The book also incorporates a touch of Japanese literature's peculiar brand of magic realism. There is a ghost, a portentous crow and some strange goings on, but don't expect them to be explained or dwelled on in any way. That's just how life is sometimes.
I love it when an author reads their own book and Ozeki's delivery was brilliant. She knows her characters perfectly and of course can do all the Japanese accents to a tee.
The second protagonist is the person reading the diary, a Japanese American author living in Canada, who you can't help but suspect a Ozeki has somewhat modelled on herself - the character is even called Ruth. Ozeki Incidentally also happens to be as then Buddhist priest. This all round closeness to her subject matter makes the characters completely believable and authentic.
"Startlingly original. Emotionally challenging"
It's normal to review a novel after you've finished reading it. Then you hold the whole book in your mind and decide what it meant to you: what you liked about it, what you didn't like about it, how it made you feel, what it made you think about and whether it was worth your time. It's a tried and trusted method that I'm going to abandon here because "A Tale For The Time Being" is not that kind of novel.
"A Tale For The Time Being" is as much about what you think with every page that you read as it is about what you will think when you've finished reading all the pages. Both views are not only valid and valuable but necessary. They reach into the heart of what this novel is about, how we are beings in time. This is simpler and more complex than it sounds. When I read a book, including this book of course, time is always on my mind. I pay attention not only to what I am being told by the page I'm reading but how that links to the pages that went before and what I think/hope/fear will happen next. I construct the narrative afresh with every page I read in a flicker of thought that I am no more conscious of than the refresh rate on my computer screen.
So I want to capture my reaction to "A Tale For The Time Being" as I go along. I'm about a third of the way through now and I already have a lot to think about.
The novel starts for the first time, with the fresh, unedited, first person, voice of Noa, a Japanese schoolgirl, capturing her thoughts in her diary. Except that, from the beginning we know two things that show the voice is disingenuous: she is writing the diary for her reader, not herself and she declares that these are the last days of her life but doesn't explain why.
The girl's voice took a while to get used to. I'd bought a novel. I was getting something else. I wasn't sure I liked it. The young girl wasn't sure I'd like it either but she'd decided that if I didn't like it, I wasn't the one for whom the novel was written and recommended that I give it to someone else..
That was the first idea to hit me between the eyes. I liked it a lot. I think that that is the perfect relationship for books and readers to have with one another.
The novel starts for the second time when Ruth (who seems to the be a version of Ruth Ozeki) finds Noa's diary in a Hello Kitty Lunch Box, washed up on the shore of the island she lives on in Canada. Ruth is written in the subjective third person as a linear narrative that interacts directly with her reading of the diary. Ruth seems a little lost, distant from her present, unable to write about her past, despite having spent ten years working on a memoir and slowly allowing herself to realize that her future may have to be very different from her now.
Nao and Ruth have a kind of Yin Yang feel to them. Nao was raised in California and feels that in her heart she is American. Ruth is an American of Japanese descent who has lived and worked in Japan and now finds herself on a Canadian island, carried there from Manhattan in the wake of her husband's need to return home. Noa's first person account and Ruth's reaction to it become a kind of dialogue across time.
About a quarter of the way through the novel, Noa explains that her 104 year old great-grandmother, once wrote an "I Novel". I wasn't sure what that was, except that I suspected that I was currently reading one, so I asked the great god Wikipedia for enlightenment. HERE'S what I was told.
Of course, Noa is writing an I Novel. It is autobiographical and it shows some things about her, like when she tortures a classmate for information, holding a knife against his throat, that are dark and damaging but it is struggling to be a truthful account of who she is. It's too early in the book for me to tell yet, but I think the whole thing, including the Ruth parts, are a form of I Novel. If this is the case, then having Ruth Ozeki read her own novel version to me in the audiobook is a master stroke.
So, the main things that have struck me so far.
This novel does something new and original with form, not in order to show how clever the author is, but to help the reader see things with fresh eyes. The blend of North American and Japanese thinking and story-telling produces a narrative alloy that is stronger than either. I want to find out what will happen next but I also want to go back, as new information and ideas emerge, and rethink my impressions of the things that have already happened in the novel.
OK. Time to read some more. Then I'll come back to this.
It's two days later and I've now read to the end of Part Two of the book and I want to take a pause to think about what I've read.
For much of Part Two, Ruth is in the background. She is working with others to understand the meaning of the artefacts she found, getting texts in Japanese and French translated but finding that it is as much the connections and the perspectives that the translators bring that surprise her than the words they produce. I wonder if this is reflection on the process of writing. The work that produces the words is solitary but the things that gives the words their meaning, being read by others who make connections that my not have been in the writer's mind but are none the less valid for that, is, if not collaborative than perhaps communal. Everyone on the island knows about the artefacts that Ruth has. They are public in the way that published text is public and their meaning emerges in a similar way.
Ruth's husband is a artist/botanist/science-geek who makes almost mystical connections between obscure climate data and day-to-day life. He speaks of gyres in the world's oceans, the migration of crows, and the physical movement of Japan towards Canada as a result of the Fukishima earthquake as if they were all things that shaped his day-to-day life. On his lips, science becomes just one of many competing and overlapping stories that try to give meaning to what is going on.
Ruth becomes more and more worried about holding on to herself : concerned that she may fall prey to Alzheimer's like her mother, wondering if how her life became so unreal to her, regretting that she cannot write. She funnels these concerns into a desire not just to understand Noa's story as a story, as you might expect a novelist to, but to confirm its reality, as if, by doing so, Ruth will confirm her own existence.
Most of Part Two is dominated by Noa's summer-long stay at her great grandmother's temple. Oddly, while I can easily and willing suspend my disbelief in other novels to accept the existence of vampires and witches and werewolves, I struggled to let myself accept the reality of Noa's encounters with the spirits of the dead in this novel. I WANT there to be an alternative explanation yet it is clear that Noa believes in her encounters.
Noa's time at the temple, the love she receives there and the strength she builds are evoked with an emotional clarity that tugged at me. This is how all children deserve to be treated. The insight's from Noa's great-grandmother are profound and kind, sometimes tinged with sadness and often lit with humour. The letter's from Noa's great-uncle, a philosophy student forced to become a soldier and then choosing to became a Kamikaze pilot to "regain agency over my life" a beautiful and sad and gave me a view of the Japanese side of this war that I've never seen before.
I'm going into Part Three of the book in a more sombre mood. I've started to share some of Ruth's anxieties to prove Noa's existence and understand how her diaries and the other contents of the Hello Kitty Lunch Box, left her possession.
I have stopped reading because I need time to recover before I continue.
The sections of the book that describe the final attack on Noa at her school and her reaction to it and the other things that happened on that day where tough to listen to but, somehow, the quieter, less dramatic account of how she spends her time at the French Maid Café were worse. The pressure of bullying, driven by contempt and hatred, the depravity that comes from treating people as things and not beings, the courage that it takes to live a life that has so little love and so much evil in it are hard to bear.
Then Ruth, a writer, a novelist, for whom fiction is a dream she can live in for months at a time, lives in fear that she has lost her grip on time and memory becoming lost and confused, something I find it very easy to imagine.
And then, finally the secret diary of the Sky Soldier, so full of cruelty and evil and yet told with such humanity that tears are the only possible response.
What started as a light book, written by a cheery schoolgirl with a precocious grasp of philosophy, has deepened into something serious and challenging, something that reminds me that we must choose how we will act in order to shape who we will become.
Writing like this leaves me in awe. What must it feel like to be able to see the world this way, to hold it in your mind for the months it takes to write a novel, to pass on your thoughts in a kind of hologram, where every fragment of narrative leads to the whole world view, and to wrap those thoughts in emotions so vivid that they feel lived, not just imagined?
So now I have finished reading the book (or rather, having it read to me by the author, which seems like a very privileged position to be in) but I have not finished thinking about it. That is a process that will run on for some time.
In the last part of the book, Ruth Ozeki makes a leap that will either make or spoil the book for many readers. She moves away from the "normal" narrative conventions of a novel, embracing the three unities of time, place and action, albeit with two different timelines, and allow her novel to embrace ideas that combines Zen mysticism with the quantum physics "multiverse" view of the world. She explores the boundaries of dream and memory and science and magic. She challenges us to think of ourselves as Time Beings with multiple concepts of time and complex and indirect means of exerting agency and taking choices.
Personally, I found the twist appealing. At the beginning of the novel, I saw Noa as problematic while I took Ruth for granted. Noa was a construct, first-person story that may or may not be real or true whereas Ruth, the reader is grounded in an unquestioned reality. Yet writing and reading brings together the imagination of two people and who is to say which one is more real.
I was also pleased that, having had her "Sliding Doors" moment, Ruth Ozeki took us back to Noa's narrative in a way that satisfied my need to know and left just enough unknown to keep me hungry.
When I first started to write this review, my draft headline, based on the first twenty percent of the book, read:
"A Tale For The Time Being" by Ruth Ozeki - Startlingly original, deeply engaging and yet easy to read this novel about - well - life and what it means to live one.
Now that I've completed the novel, I can't let that stand. "Startlingly original, deeply engaging" certainly. "Easy to read" not so much. It is at points painful, even repulsive to read. The content is uncompromising and the presentation is vivid. At other points, the author asks the reader to do some work, to think rather than just read, to add meaning, not just extract it.
It is a novel about life ad how to live it but dualism is fundamental to this novel. As our Buddhist nun explains: "Up. Down. Same. Note Same". So life cannot be described without death and both become a choice. Suicide is central to this novel but it is meant to be suicide as agency, not suicide as surrender.
So what should the headline be?
Startlingly original, deeply engaging, emotionally challenging, conceptually complex but fundamentally human novel about our power to choose the life we lead.
"Bit quirky, great fun"
It's narrated by the author
This is an unusual book - a very creative and interesting idea. It is rather quirky, so not for everyone, and it does have a few weird bits in, but overall I really liked it.
"Interesting portrayal of very different culture"
Fascinating insight into Japanese society and an engaging if sometimes harowing tale. The depictions of human relationships were thought provoking and insightful. The narration was very well done by the authoress.
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