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Book Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Many of us don’t contemplate time on a deep level. Sure, we worry about getting to work or appointments promptly, and often lament the passing of time when a birthday rolls around. But Ruth Ozeki, in her brilliant novel published earlier this year, explains how “now” is so fleeting, how moments in time can connect in the strangest ways, and that 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.”  Her novel is brilliant, compelling, intellectual, and tragic, all in one. When was the last time you were entertained, were emotionally wrecked, AND learned about world culture, quantum physics, military applications of computer video games, Internet bullying, suicide, Buddhism, meditation, botany, families, Japanese prostitution, World War II, and Marcel Proust? If you read this novel, you will experience all of the above, and so much more.

The novel is narrated in two voices, belonging to Ruth and Nao. Ruth, a writer, is an American (whose mother was Japanese) who lives on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia with her Canadian husband, a botanist. Nao, a Japanese teenager, spent her formative years in California while her father worked in technology, and is also a writer, albeit an unpublished one (but quite the voice of her generation). Ozeki is deft at weaving back and forth between the two—Ruth’s is a more mature voice, while Nao’s sections read like a very insightful young adult character narrating. In fact, Ozeki employs first person with Nao and third person with Ruth, with great effect. Ruth has found Nao’s diary washed up on the shores, stored with care in a Hello Kitty lunchbox and thought to have been swept that great distance by the effects of the powerful tsunami in Japan. The “writers” have plenty in common, though they have never met, and “will they?” is the question that will not be answered here.

Ozeki has a knack for entwining time and dimensions and making brilliant connections, and she can and does make Marcel Proust relevant to the modern world Nao lives in, as well connecting her “heroic” great uncle who died in WWII with her father, a tech worker in the 2000s.

The two compelling relationships the book delves into are Nao’s relationship with her great grandmother, a feminist involved in radical politics who is a Zen Buddhist nun by the time Nao meets her; and Ruth’s relationship with her seemingly passive (but incredibly smart) husband, Oliver. A reader might label Oliver as a simple man in the beginning, but he is just the quietly strong, polar opposite of his writer wife. While she is embracing words and language, he is clinging to plants and wildlife studies, and the novel provides a fascinating look into a marriage between someone who is very verbal and someone who is much more literal—imagination coexisting with science. Ozeki’s first name is also Ruth, like her character, and she is married in real life to a Canadian man named Oliver, so the reader is left wondering how much of this is fiction and how much is autobiographical. Ruth Ozeki is also a real-life Zen Buddhist priest and half Japanese herself like her character Ruth, but in the end, her expert writing makes this a moot point, as it really just adds to her authority in telling this story.

Nao and her 104-year-old great grandmother (“old Jiko”) have an unlikely connection that transcends generations, and they become close when Nao’s parents send her off to live in the mountains with the nuns for a summer, which is good for her after a year of severe bullying in school. Her mind and body need healing, and who better than a Buddhist grandma to help that along? Nao doesn’t fit in when she is thrust back into Japanese culture, having resided in Sunnyvale, CA for so long while her father worked in the Silicon Valley, so she is flailing. It doesn’t help that her father is suicidal, and she has to mature quickly during the role reversal they undergo, swapping “parent” and “child” behavior. Nao becomes determined to write her Jiko’s life story, but ends up becoming very involved in writing her own story, which culminates with what Ruth finds.

Ozeki provides an extensive glossary at the back of her novel, defining the many Japanese references and botanical and scientific terms—it is more than obvious that painstaking research went into this work. The novel, especially toward the end, veers off into a bit of the supernatural (and put your thinking caps on when it goes into quantum physics!), but always at its heart is two women of different generations who are experiencing time in different worlds, but are somehow connected. It is a masterful work, and a must read.

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