About halfway through A Tale for the Time Being I had the uncomfortable feeling that this was going to be a reincarnation story and that I would soon discover one of the main characters (Jiko, nun, novelist, anarchist, feminist and importantly great-grandmother) to have been reborn as Ruth Ozeki, author of this — this what? A novel with Japanese footnotes, six appendices and a bibliography; a memoir; a semi-autobiographical meditation on time, climate change, history, or all of these? It was a relief to find I was wrong, though fair play, Ruth Ozeki does happen to have a Japanese mother and to be both a novelist (My Year of Meat, All Over Creation) and a recently ordained Zen Buddhist priest.
The pleasure of this book is the way in which, with its inclusive references to everything, from history to quantum physics, Buddhist practices to literary theory, Silicon Valley to Japanese temples, it stretches the boundaries of the novel while managing to remain intensely readable.
The gist of the story is that a semi-fictional novelist, name of Ruth, living on a remote island in British Columbia, discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach containing some letters, a watch and the diary of a troubled Japanese teenager. It’s thought that the box is part of the debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. The diary soon has Ruth desperate to find out the fate of the mysterious schoolgirl, named Nao.
This is a message-in-a-bottle story writ large. It’s also — and this is its greatest strength — a coming-of-age story. Too much in one book? Not really. Ozeki divides the narrative mainly between Ruth and Nao, with each being given between 11 and 14 pages alternately. There’s such a clear construction to the book that the reader feels in safe hands all the way through.
Ruth’s sections can become a bit tedious, whereas Nao’s diary is unfailingly vivid, dramatic, sassy and moving. Brought up in America, Nao’s Japanese father loses his job in Silicon Valley and she’s taken to Tokyo. The bullying she endures at school is close to torture. Her father keeps trying to commit suicide. Nao even considers it for herself. (Eastern and Western attitudes to suicide — honour or shame — are impressively explored.) Emotional and spiritual rescue for Nao comes from spending time in her 104-year-old great-grandmother Tiko’s temple where she learns about the lives of her ancestors, including an uncle who was a kamikaze pilot. (It’s his watch and letters in the Hello Kitty lunchbox.)
And aha! It turns out I wasn’t so far off track, for the watch is set ticking and a Japanese Jungle Crow turns up on Ruth’s island and is obviously the reincarnation of the kamikaze pilot who leads Ruth, by dream, to Tiko’s temple. (Phew!) Elsewhere, Ruth declares herself to feel a ‘sense of kinship with this woman from another time and place, engaged in self-revelatory, self-concealing and self-effacing acts’. Like writing a novel, perhaps.
There’s warmth, wit and wisdom within the book, but I’d somehow hoped for a particularly new and revelatory nugget at the end. Instead the book rather drifts off into thoughts of multiple worlds and the notion that not-knowing is good because it allows for lots of possibilities. Indeed.
Canongate are publishing A Tale for the Time Being with considerable hoopla. It comes in a curious spineless hardback — you can see the stitching where the spine should be and where, actually, it needs to be because by the time I’d finished, the book was coming apart. The cover’s a Japanese flag with a peel-off rising sun and the picture of a watery girl (Nao?) underneath. Go for the paperback. Or if you’re brave try the ‘augmented reality animated book jacket’. The very idea!
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 30 March 2013