A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

a tale for the time beingSlow-moving existential angst…

😐 😐 😐

Shortlisted for the 2013 Booker, this tells two intertwined tales – of Nao, a Japanese schoolgirl, and of Ruth, a Canadian author of Japanese heritage. Ruth has found Nao’s journal washed up on the shore and begins to obsess about finding out whether the people and events Nao discusses are true. Nao’s story is of a young girl who has lived most of her life in California but has now returned to Japan and we see the society through her eyes.

Nao’s story is interesting, if bleak. Having been brought up in California, Nao is seen as an outsider by her classmates on her return to Japan. We learn of the extreme bullying she is both subjected to and participates in at school, leading her to drop out. Meantime, her suicidal father is making repeated failed attempts to end his own life, leading Nao to harbour suicidal thoughts of her own. In an effort to break this cycle, her parents send her to spend the summer with her old great-grandmother, a Zen nun, who rapidly becomes Nao’s sole support and spiritual guide. While here, Nao learns the story of her great-uncle, a war-hero who died during WWII.

Ruth’s story is a dull distraction. Ruth is a writer, struggling with long-term writers block, giving Ozeki the opportunity to tell the reader, at length, how very, very tough life is for writers – even one who lives in fairly idyllic surroundings with no apparent real health or money worries and with a partner who loves and supports her. She is also in a perpetual state of existential angst and this part of the novel merely serves to interrupt and slow to a crawl the telling of Nao’s tale. And to make matters worse, Ozeki introduces a quasi-mystical, quasi-quantum-mechanical element into Ruth’s part that turns Nao’s believable and often moving story into some kind of mystical fantasy in the end. The underlying questions that are being examined – of identity and the nature of time – are addressed with a subtlety in Nao’s story that is almost destroyed by the clumsy handling of Ruth’s portion of the book.

Ruth Ozeki
Ruth Ozeki

The writing is skilful and confident for the most part and, when telling a plain tale, Ozeki writes movingly and often beautifully. Unfortunately she has attempted to be too clever in this, not just with the supernatural nonsense, but with the whole conceit of Ruth translating Nao’s diary as we go along. This leads to lots of unnecessary footnotes, silly little drawings and playing with fonts, all of which merely serve to distract from the story. Ruth will translate a sentence except for one or two words, which she leaves as Japanese in the main body of the text, and then gives the translation a footnote – why? It would be understandable if she only did this with concepts which may be unfamiliar to a Western audience, but she does it for normal words – like leaving in ‘zangyo’ and telling us in a footnote that this means ‘overtime’. The flow of reading is constantly interrupted by the need to check the bottom of the page to find out what the sentence means.

While sometimes telling a story from different points of views adds depth, in this case unfortunately the contrast serves only to weaken the thrust and impact of the main story. Had this been a plainer telling of Nao’s story alone, it would probably have got top rating from me, and overall there is enough talent on display here to mean that I may look out for more of Ozeki’s work, keeping my fingers crossed she finds a way to end future books without resorting to the fantastical. But, for me, it’s hard to see how this could stand in contention with either of the other Booker nominees I’ve read this year – Harvest or Testament of Mary. Of course, that probably means it will win…

For an entirely different view of this book, please click through to read Lady Fancifull’s review. Sometimes we agree, sometimes…not so much! 😉

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

22 thoughts on “A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

  1. FictionFan – Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy this more. The premise sounds interesting, but if there are too many distractions, it’s hard to focus on the main story. Thanks as ever for your candor.


  2. Very interesting! I definitely see how a dual story, I suppose, could become vexing. The professor doesn’t think this is a professorish story at all. Though, I must admit, the journal washing up on shore sounds neat. But I’m not sure how it survived. Was it really readable?


  3. I feel like I’ve been seeing Ruth Ozeki’s name a lot lately. This doesn’t make me want to push her up to the top of my list, but it’ll keep her as a contender in the “maybe” category. Thanks for reviewing!


    • To be fair to her, some people seem to think this book is wonderful – I think it depends on whether you can accept the introduction of supernatural/quantum elements at the end. Lady Fancifull’s review is much more glowing…the things I hated about it, she loved…


    • I always respect LF’s opinion – even when she’s wrong! 😉

      Mind you, this is nothing – be thankful you weren’t around for the great Jasper Ffffforde Wars of 2012…


      • However much FF and I fall out about both of us sometimes secretly thinking the other is two chocolates short of a box (or, in her case, 3) over books, we are united about the superiority of cats and chocolate (except each of us is no doubt convinced of the superiority of our own felines) And the conflict generosity and greed would be tested by the last desirable chocolate in the box


        • The only reason I am 3 chocs short is because LF sneaked in and pinched one when I wasn’t looking.

          And you could always have the last chocolate in the box – so long as I get all the rest. That seems fair…


  4. “But, for me, it’s hard to see how this could stand in contention with either of the other Booker nominees I’ve read this year – Harvest or Testament of Mary. Of course, that probably means it will win…”

    Isn’t that just the truth!!! 🙂


    • Strikes banjo – except of course that much as I loved Testament of Mary (the only other Booker I’ve read) my admiration of this is even more, so I fervently hope it DOES win, which means, some other book will. I think Eleanor Catton is the bookie’s Booker favourite!

      Strikes banjo – am now deep into Ozeki’s FIRST, published back in 98, and gobbling it up with delight again (except that it contains a damning expose of the links between pharma and the meat industry. She is an environmentalist and I think its safe to say no admirer of capitalism) So ‘gobbling it up’ isn’t quite right. It must contain just about the maddest, funniest, most please-let-me-get-to-the-vomitarium recipe for cooking beef ever. Hysterical laughter and nausea fought it out between them. Duelling banjos indeed (My Year Of Meat, will no doubt surface on a blog near me soon).

      Somehow, i don’t think that even the list of ingredients of that beef recipe will have my dear friend FF racing to add this to her kitchen shelf. The awful thing is, funny as the recipe is, it rather has the ring of awful truth about it………….Haute cuisine it AIN’T, but does bear a remarkable resemblance to some recipes for busy housewives of the 50s and 60s that I’ve seen dredged up

      Most of all I appreciate the estimable FF’s fairness in presentation of the other side view of Ozeki!


      • Well, that will have baffled poor Indiscriminate Critic no end! 😉

        Genuinely, I find it hard to believe that you think this one is better than Testament. Didn’t miserable Ruth bore you? And could you really accept the time-travelling nonsense at the end? Weird, m’dear! I’m willing to lay you a bet – £50 of Hotel Chocolat’s finest – that regardless of the Booker, in twenty years people will still be reading Testament but, about Ozeki, will be saying ‘Who?’ It’s about at the level of the Time Traveller’s Wife – throwaway gimmick-lit.



        • Deeply shocked! Re final phrase.And I didn’t find Ruth miserable or boring, but trying to explore concepts in novel form.

          PS In 20 years £50 of Hotel Choc’s finest will no doubt be one chocolate


            • In case I am 6 foot under or a puff of smoke in 20 years, I have now amended my will. with the following addendum, and additional content stored in bank vaults: Content :one violet cream, wrapped in cling film, duly deposited – cost for 20 years rental, £50.

              ‘In the event of literati saying ‘Who’? or ‘Dunno?’ in 20 years time to the question ‘Who is Ruth Ozeki or What is A Tale for The Time Being please arrange shipment of this violet cream to Fiction Fan, forthwith. In the event of getting a correct answer to the questions, please put the VC in a bin, as it is likely to be past its best before date.”


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