Well. I was dreading reading this book. While Ozeki may have made history by being the first ever Buddhist monk to make the Booker shortlist, the synopsis of this novel didn’t exactly make me fall over myself to read it. In Tokyo, a sixteen year old girl, Nao, is so horribly bullied and feels so low and alone that she decides to end her life. Before doing so, she wants to write a diary chronicling the life of her great grandmother, a 104 year old Buddhist monk. Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth (alarm bell rings), a novelist (alarm bell gets louder) who finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed ashore on the remote island where she lives with her artist boyfriend (alarm bell now deafening). Inside the lunchbox there is a seemingly random collection of artifacts. Among them is Nao’s diary. And Ruth begins to read it.
“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.”
Well, what can I say? Sometimes the thing you dread ends up being really fine. And sometimes, it ends up being such a glorious gorgeous and wonderful experience that when it’s over, you’ll want to turn to the person next to you and give them a huge hug. Whether you’re on your morning commute and it’s a total stranger, or whether you’re in bed with your partner, the closing lines of this book will make you feel like hugging someone. To begin with, it’s very much a book of two halves. Nao is brilliant. Authentic, engrossing, sweet, funny, her chapters are delightful. Ruth is a little less enthralling and I also spent most of her first appearances saying “why have you written yourself into this book???” quite a lot.
As we delve deeper into Nao’s story, it all becomes clear, even if events themselves conversely begin to shroud themselves in mystery. Nao’s journal entries become darker and darker (Ozeki really doesn’t flinch away from the misery she heaps on Nao, and some of the bullying she endures is most unpleasant to read) and Ruth becomes obsessed with finding her and finding out whether or not she went through with her planned suicide. Believe me when I tell you that you will want to know as well. Detractors could argue that the ending of the book is a little bit like “clap if you believe in fairies” and everyone will have their own take on it (kind of like the ending of Life of Pi, only less annoying).
This tale most definitely takes you on a journey, an intellectual, cerebral and impeccably researched one at that (so much so that it requires 165 footnotes and 6 appendices). It’s an epic and involving read, it made me laugh out loud and broke my heart repeatedly. It’s brilliant and everyone should read it. Though if, after the first two chapters, you don’t agree with Ozeki that The Future is Nao, then you’re reading the wrong book.
My Booker Prize Longlist challenge is in its closing stages now, with only four books left to go. You can find this review and all my other CBR reviews, past and present, on my blog here.