A Hello Kitty box washes up on the shores of a small island in British Columbia, where it is deemed trash by Ruth, and picked up to be thrown away later. Ruth’s husband Oliver satisfies his curiosity by opening the box, finding a diary and old letters. When Ruth begins reading the diary, the perspective changes to that of the diary’s writer, a Japanese teenager named Nao. Nao plans to write about her Buddhist nun great-grandmother Jiko, but reveals more about her personal life and struggles in the process.
Nao and Ruth are imperfect yet intriguing mirrors of each other. Both were placed involuntarily into a culture that they didn’t ask for and don’t want to accept. They remain convinced that their former lives would have freed them from all of their current problems. For Nao, this means her life in Silicon Valley where her dad was a programmer, before he lost his job and had to move the family back to Tokyo. For Ruth, this means her life in New York City, where she was filled with inspiration to write and had many like-minded friends. Both process the suffocating isolation that is their new lives by biting their tongues until withholding their thoughts is no longer possible.
I’m still reeling from trying to process all that occurred in A Tale for the Time Being. I listened to this as an audiobook, beautifully narrated by the author, Ruth Ozeki. After the book ended, she explained that the physical book has footnotes, appendices, and illustrations that greatly enrich the story, and understandably, those simply can’t be conveyed in an audio format. Even without those, the story is bursting with influences from esoteric sources. To condense my thoughts on the novel, without giving away spoilers or re-writing the book, I think it would be easiest to explain why I loved it by concentrating on five points:
5. It’s meditative yet brilliantly paced.
To me, when I read a book, good timing is more important than plot. This book delicately balances descriptions of Buddhist funeral rites and of Pacific Ocean current patterns while still moving the plot forward. I enjoyed pondering the subjects that needed a little more brain power as much as I enjoyed the parts where characters raced against time.
4. It digests recent historical events into our cultural metanarrative.
9/11, the Fukushima Daiichi tsunami and nuclear disaster, and the lingering effects of WWII are things that we as a culture are continuing to process. It seems that every year Hollywood retells war stories completely fascinated with violence. How can we not be fascinated by it? We live beside it. And there’s no doubt that this attempt at storing our violent histories is similar to storing the nuclear wastewater in underground tanks—it cannot be contained and is bound to seep out into our culture. A Tale for the Time Being subliminally relates the prevalence of violence through the horrific bullying of its characters. But grandma Jiko uses the Buddhist perception of eternity to teach an alternate way to accept violence. I’m thankful for Ozeki’s work in this area by opening up other narrations of history and hopefully permeating our collective conscience.
3. It addresses ups and downs of being bicultural.
Nao lived most of her life in Southern California, and Ruth clearly identifies as being from NYC. Ruth, who is Japanese-American, and Nao, who is, practically speaking, American-Japanese, both wince with questions like: You are Japanese, why can’t you do this? Or the pregnant expectations of: You live here now, why don’t you act like us? The truth is, it’s not that simple. But one of the benefits of being bicultural is that, while they may not perfectly fit into either culture, they are able to form a relational bridge between both.
2. Ecology, theoretical quantum physics and Zen Buddhism are seamlessly blended.
Don’t be intimidated! Thankfully, Ruth also doesn’t have much of a grasp on these subjects, and other characters come alongside to teach her. It can come off as preachy or patronizing, but it’s worth the sacrifice to be able to connect the dots and follow the path the author is taking you down. In Jiko’s view, science and Buddhism don’t conflict at all. In fact, they have been supporting each other all along. This part isn’t overly-explained, and I loved the enlightened feeling I got when I was able to reach the conclusions on my own.
1. The writing is eloquent and breathtaking.
At times I was giggling, other times I was reverent, but at all times I appreciated the deliberate care and consideration that Ozeki put into crafting this story.