October 22, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being.

The title takes on much more meaning upon reading the book.

It's not just a tale for now.  But a tale about Nao.  And a tale for all beings, in all times.

Nao is a sixteen-year-old who moves with her parents from Sunnyvale, California back to Tokyo after her father loses his job. As if Tokyo is not confusing enough for her after living in America, Nao is bullied at school (they even have a funeral for her to signify how much her presence is worthless to them) and her father attempts suicide the way some people switch favorite songs.  The one person who makes any impact on her at all is her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, and she begins a journal to and for a random person in the future to find, documenting Jiko's life (and, unintentionally, perhaps, her own.)

Ruth and her husband, Oliver, live on a quiet island in British Colombia where she is a writer.  While walking the beach, they stumble upon a lunchbox with a freezer bag, washed up from the ocean, inside of which contains Nao's journal, among other discoveries.  The assumption is that the Tsunami has washed these ashore.  Ruth begins exploring the contents and almost just as soon begins to obsess over Nao's life.

The book is written in alternating chapters between Nao and Ruth.  Nao was by far the more interesting of the two.  Ruth was incurably boring and I had trouble not simply skimming through her chapters most of the time.  She did not add much to the story and her chapters could have been cut in half.  I found her husband, only a minor character in the story, to be far more compelling a character than Ruth.  Perhaps this was Ozeki's point- that Ruth was such an impotent personality that she couldn't help but be swept up into the mystery of Nao.  However, seeing as how Ruth is a writer, it is just as likely that was to be the reason behind her infatuation.

Jiko, the great-grandmother, was by far my favorite part of the entire story.  I empathized with Nao and her mother, dealing with the chronic depression and suicidal behavior of her father.  I felt bad for her father because I do not believe he wanted to be like that.  I am not sure I am happy with the way Ozeki took things with the nuclear family unit.  The ending, as a whole, was a bit lacking.  It felt like a lot of build-up, and then it just sort of fizzled out.  I enjoyed reading it up to that point, though.  I didn't hate the ending, it was just kind of like Ozeki did not know where she wanted to take it so she made it into a non-ending. Maybe I missed something or my expectations were too high.

Have you read A Tale for the Time Being?  What were your impressions?

"I don't mind thinking of the world without me because I'm unexceptional, but I hate the idea of the world without old Jiko.  She's totally unique and special, like the last Galapagos tortoise or some other ancient animal hobbling around on the scorched earth, who is the only one left of its kind." - Nao

"How much can you really trust the promise of a suicidal father?" - Nao

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