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