‘A Tale for the Time Being’ by Ruth Ozeki

“A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki  (2013)  – 418 pages

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“A Tale for the Time Being” is made up of two main stories.  One story takes place in Japan and concerns 14-year old girl Nao Yasutani and her family.  The other story is about a writer named Ruth and her husband Oliver who live on an island on the Canadian coast near Vancouver.

The story of Nao and her family is captivating and held my interest throughout; the Canadian story not so much.  The Canadian story is little more than a framing device for the Japanese story. 

“The word ‘now’ always felt especially strange and unreal to me because it was me, at least the sound of it was.  Nao was now and had this whole other meaning.  In Japan, some words have kotodama, which are spirits which live inside a word and give it a special power.”

 You see Nao knows both Japanese and English.  She and her mother and father lived in Sunnyvale, California for several years.  Her father did quite well in the dot.com boom of the late 1990s until he lost his job.  Now Nao and her family have returned to Japan where Nao is persecuted mercilessly by her classmates for her American ways, and her father is contemplating suicide.

Things begin to change when Nao and her father go to see her great grandma, 104 year-old Jiko Yasutani, who  is now a  nun in a monastery.  Nao learns about her great-uncle Haruki who was one of the suicide Kamikaze pilots during World War II.   Through his diaries, we learn his full story.

Nao’s voice in the novel  is that of a typical 14 year-old girl, gratingly adolescent and all.  The great grandma Jiko is stereotypical in her ancient all knowing wisdom.  However these things don’t matter, because the Japanese story is so fascinating it sweeps other concerns aside.

If only the Canada story were so gripping.  I suppose Ruth Ozeki wanted to portray a typical Canadian couple in Ruth and Oliver, but the best way to describe this couple is ‘bland’.  As I mentioned before they frame the Japanese story, and provide a means of getting that complete story told.  However enough pages are devoted to Ruth and Oliver that their story should have added more value to the novel than it does.

There are several references to Marcel Proust and his “In Search of Lost Time” which I did not find particularly informing or interesting.

Mention is made of the Fukushima nuclear accident and the movement of radiation across the Pacific.

Overall “A Tale for the Time Being” is a strong novel that helped this reader better understand the Japanese way of facing life and better realize that this Japanese family has the same crises of conscience we all share.    My main impression is that Ruth Ozeki tried many audacious things in this novel, some which worked extremely well and some which did not.  I appreciate her fearless ingenuity and was tremendously moved by large parts of this novel.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by LisaO on September 28, 2013 at 7:31 PM

    The homonymic now and Nao reminded me of my stepson’s wedding where his best man made a joke in his speech about how ironic it was that David who is never on time should marry a girl named Nao. Nao(ko) was born in Japan and came to the United States for college. Now she’s raising two boys here in Minnesota. I wonder if she smiled when she first studied the word. I may have to read the book for the character’s name alone.

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  2. Hi LisaO,
    And I’m hoping it is the LisaO I’m guessing she is. Not everyone uses ‘homonymic’ in a sentence correctly.
    “Nao’ must be quite a common name in Japan. I bet she never dreamed that now Nao would be raising two kids in Minnesota.
    “A Tale for the Time Being’ is shortlisted for the big prize, the Booker, and we’ll find out the winner on October 15.

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