Our good friend WoodsieGirl has read all the books on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize for the last few years. This is not because she is an avid reader, with varied interests and is constantly on the lookout for new great fiction. She does this purely to mock my inability to organize my book list. Honestly. It’s evil.
Anyhoo, once again, she has kindly written up reviews of each book for us.
A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING
THE BLURB (from Amazon)
‘Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.’
Ruth discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of her beach home. Within it lies a diary that expresses the hopes and dreams of a young girl. She suspects it might have arrived on a drift of debris from the 2011 tsunami. With every turn of the page, she is sucked deeper into an enchanting mystery.
In a small cafe in Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao Yasutani is navigating the challenges thrown up by modern life. In the face of cyberbullying, the mysteries of a 104-year-old Buddhist nun and great-grandmother, and the joy and heartbreak of family, Nao is trying to find her own place – and voice – through a diary she hopes will find a reader and friend who finally understands her.
Weaving across continents and decades, and exploring the relationship between reader and writer, fact and fiction, A Tale for the Time Being is an extraordinary novel about our shared humanity and the search for home.
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, is a strange and sprawling book. It’s two intertwining stories: that of Nao (pronounced ‘now’), a Japanese schoolgirl writing a diary about what she intends to be the last days of her life; and Ruth, a Japanese-American writer who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the shores of her remote Canadian home. The chapters alternate between Nao’s diary (translated and with added footnotes and comments from Ruth), and Ruth’s story of reading the diary and trying to find out what it means and what has happened to Nao.
Both tales are fairly sad. Nao, having grown up in Silicon Valley but moved back to Japan as a teenager when the dotcom bubble burst and her father lost his job, doesn’t fit in and is horrifically bullied by her classmates (culminating in an attempted rape and a humiliating online auction of her underwear). Her parents don’t seem aware of their daughter’s struggles – particularly her suicidal father. Her only real support comes from her grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun.
Ruth’s tale is less dramatic, but still melancholy. She is suffering from writers’ block, grieving from the recent death of her mother, and struggling to adjust to life on a remote island in British Columbia, having moved there from New York to be with her husband. She becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Nao. Her claustrophobic days spent Googling Nao and her family and avoiding her gossipy neighbours are a sharp counterpoint to the drama of Nao’s life.
Weaving through both stories are some pretty big themes – taking in Zen Buddhism, Japanese kamikaze pilots of the second world war, the morality of suicide, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011, the nature of time and memory, oceanic currents and the Pacific gyre, and even quantum mechanics. It’s an ambitious novel, and it’s hard not to be impressed at its scope.
So I’m not really sure why I didn’t enjoy it more. For some reason, despite being impressed at the ideas and the ambition behind it, I just couldn’t get into the story. It could be that I found the teenage narrator, Nao, incredibly irritating – I did sympathise with her plight, but her voice really grated on me after a while. I also really didn’t enjoy the sections of the book that veer into magical realism. This is entirely a personal preference, so other readers who do enjoy magical realism may get a lot more out of the book than I did, but I generally don’t get on with that particular genre!
Although the concept and the ideas within the book are fascinating, ultimately I think the writing lets it down. It’s certainly not as strong as the previous two Booker shortlisters I’ve read so far (Jim Crace’s Harvest and Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary), so I don’t think it’s a likely contender for the winner.