Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is two stories in one, or rather one story within another. Nao Yasutani, a sixteen-year-old girl living in Japan in the early 2000s, is writing a diary where she intends to tell the story of her 104-yr-old great grandmother Jiko and her life as a Buddhist nun. What she ends up writing about, however, is her terrible life as a recent transplant to Japan, where she endures bullying that would make and after-school special cry. She plans to commit suicide, she says, but not before she can write everything she knows about Jiko.
Across the ocean on a remote Canadian island, Ruth finds Nao’s diary in a Hello Kitty lunch box wrapped in plastic that has washed up on the beach after the terrible Tsunami in 2011. Ruth becomes obsessed with Nao’s diary and learning more about her family and finding out where she is now and if she is ok.
I liked this book for several reasons. The pace is fairly even and it is written well. I have a vivid picture of the island Ruth and her husband Oliver live and work on, and of the tiny apartment Nao shares with her parents near (or in, I can’t remember exactly) Tokyo. I really enjoyed Nao’s visit to the Buddhist temple for the summer with her fantastic great grandmother Jiko. In fact, I’d read another whole novel just about Jiko. Which leads me to my first major gripe about this novel: Nao never actually writes that much about Jiko’s life. Her diary serves as just that – a recording of her own life and struggles. Jiko makes many appearances and is revered and adored, but often Nao get sidetracked by her own situation. Considering how horrible Nao’s life is, this is understandable. I really had to distance myself emotionally from this poor girl; she is beaten, sexually assaulted, ignored, you name it. Her own parents seem somewhat oblivious and think their one effort to solve the problem with school authorities worked. It didn’t. If I’d really let myself get involved in this girl, I don’t know if I could have finished the book. My other issue is that I found Ruth’s story pretty uninteresting, and she as a character kind of weak. She seems to basically follow her husband wherever works best for him, giving up her city life to follow his dreams in the middle of nowhere, Canada. Ruth’s chapters do provide a lighter respite from the seriously depressing ones sometimes, so I can see why Ozeki felt like framing the narrative this way.
This book is fairly lengthy and hard to stomach sometimes, so I don’t know that I’d ever read it again, but I think it’s definitely worth your time should you pick it up.