Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being is a playful book from page 1.   Or perhaps right from the title page, as the title is a pun:  a time being is a being who lives in time, like a person or a tree or an animal.   But of course, its also a tale for today ie/ "the time being" and a tale that is "good enough for now".  And that's only the beginning of the ways in which the author plays with words, with time, and with meaning as she interleaves two stories:  that of a middle-aged American writer who lives on Cortes Island, and the story of an unhappy Japanese teenager as told in a diary that the writer finds washed up on the beach.  

The book is very engaging.  One of the stories is a mystery:  what happened to Nao, the Japanese schoolgirl who wrote the diary?  Was she killed in the 2011 Japanese tsunami? How did her diary end up on Cortes? The other story is also a search:  Nao's search for a reason to live.  Nao is suicidal, or says she is in her diary.  She also says that she's going to tell you the life story of her 105 year-old great grandmother, an anarchist feminist novelist and Buddhist nun.  But you can't always believe everything Nao says, although she tells her story in such a personal and immediate way that it's not always easy to keep that in mind.

Everyone in my book club liked the book, except for M, who prefers books that have a clearer structure or theme.  I see her point: A Tale for the Time Being is bursting with characters, themes, ideas, animals, and events.  In some ways it doesn't cohere.  But the thread of Nao's story, and of Ruth's quest to understand it were compelling.  I was content to think of all of the 'extra' elements as ornamentation that added interest (if not additional meaning) to the story of Ruth and Nao.

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