A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. (shortlisted on Booker)
This is a complex story that travels across countries, culture and time but which is rooted in two protagonists, an American writer living on an off shore Canadian island and a Japanese school girl.
The book delves into Buddhism, life and death, quantum physics, amongst other things, but it leads the reader by the hand so that the theories/philosophies are absorbed rather than understood. The life stories of both protagonists travel in parallel and become inter-dependent.
Ultimately, the book reflects on the importance of ‘time being’; living in the present moment but it also looks at how the present moment extends itself around the world and is inter related. Ruth Ozeki refers to the 6,400,099,980 moments in a day. Written out, that is six billion, four hundred million, ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty moments in a day. One snap of the finger and thumb is 65 moments. If you snapped your finger 98,463,077 times without stopping, you would know how you spent every moment in a day. I liked this. It encapsulated the concept of time for me. But, Ruth Ozeki’s book explains it better than I can.
So the story follows a Japanese schoolgirl whose father has lost his secure job in California and so returns his family to Tokyo where his daughter is abused by her school mates and he slides into depression and becomes suicidal. The girl, Nao, writes about her experience, about her Buddhist grandmother aged 104, her father, her kamikaze uncle and slips the book, the uncle’s journal and watch into a water proof container and sends it out into the world. It arrives at the shore of Ruth, a writer from New York, living an isolated life with her husband and cat on a rickety island off the Pacific coast of Canada.
The book weaves back and forth between Nao and Ruth, between the two islands, two cultures, different time frames, They are separate but become dependent on the other without knowing who the other is.
A Tale for the Time Being is engrossing and enlightening. The imagery is beautiful. I loved the metaphor/simile of the spirit/soul (kotodama) as a fish in the stomach which re-appears throughout the book. The book reflects on life, death, modern living, poverty, cruelty, love and ultimately the importance of self awareness.
I couldn’t read this book in one sitting. I had to put it down often. To absorb. This is a good thing. Sometimes I found it heavy handed and too dense. On occasion, I felt it stretched credibility. But overall, I was hooked. I believed in the characters and I wanted to know what happened. I liked the way the author was able to cross stitch the themes across the different cultures and time and the way she wove the practicality of everyday life with the complex themes of time, quantum physics, life and death. It’s definitely worth reading.