I had never heard of this book. It popped up in one of my “What’s Available Now” searches on my library’s eBook site. I was going to use this as my “Cover Art” Bingo square, because I loved the cover and that’s a big part of why I picked it, but then I found out it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award and so I’m using it for “Snubbed,” because this book should have one at least one of those.
Ruth lives on a remote island with her husband near British Columbia. She is a writer, but since her mom died she hasn’t really had any inspiration or drive to write anything. One day, walking on the beach, she finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox in a ziplock bag. Upon opening it, it is clear it has floated over from Japan, and she as well as others presume it’s the start of the detritus that will wash ashore from the Tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.
Upon opening the box, among other things is a journal written by a sixteen-year-old girl who has decided it is time to kill herself, but before she does she wants to write down the life story of her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old, feminist, anarchist Buddhist nun novelist and mother of three. Ruth starts to read, and quickly decides to pace her reading to match how it was written. In doing so, we meet Nao and learn her story while also following Ruth as she reads it.
This book is extremely non-linear and magical realism doesn’t really begin to cover it. It really is based very heavily in the concepts of Zen Buddhism, so time, reality, right and wrong, and the permanence of anything is very much called into question at all times. As Jiko answers when Nao texts to ask her where she should start this story, “Start where you are.”
This is a beautiful book. I waited a while to write this review because the longer I ruminate on everything in it the more I like it. It is so dense and meaty, and the two women in the book are so well rounded and real. It is also strange and convoluted, and magical. I know that I’m going to need to reread this book to catch everything I missed the first time through.
I will say, without delving into spoiler territory, that as this book is very much based in the impermanence and non-linearness taught by Zen Buddhism, don’t expect a neat, tidy ending. The ending is weird, and for a lot of people probably unrealistic. I would recommend just rolling with it, over time it fits in and works, even if it’s not what you thought would.