A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (audio)

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.

My mother gave me this audiobook for my birthday. With her own print copy ready, we set out to read together. She had already very much enjoyed the audiobook. Now I’ve finished, and she hasn’t yet, so we haven’t done our final debrief together; but we have discussed as we’ve leapfrogged down the middle.

A Tale for the Time Being is unusual in a few delightful, fresh ways. The opening voice is that of Nao, a sixteen-year-old girl living in Tokyo. (In this time-obsessed novel, you can bet her name is a meaningful homonym.) Nao is Japanese but has lived most of her life in Sunnyvale, California, and the recent move to Tokyo has been very hard on her. She is the victim of criminal bullying at school, and has decided to end her life, but before she does, she wants to record the amazing life of her great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun and radical anarchist feminist. She sets out to do this in a diary. The diary is being read by Ruth, a novelist living on Canada’s west coast on a remote island with her husband Oliver and their cat, named Schrodinger but more commonly called Pest, or Pesto. (Ruth’s life matches that of author Ruth Ozeki suspiciously closely.) Ruth found the diary and a few other artifacts, well-wrapped in a barnacle-encrusted ziploc bag, on a beach near her home: the beach near Jap Ranch, as she calls it, her own Japanese heritage giving her the right and motivating her to remember the mistreatment of her people during World War II in these parts. (Oliver, who is of German heritage, cannot call it Jap Ranch.)

The story is told in alternating sections, in Ruth’s present and in Nao’s diary-recorded recent past, and then supplemented by other artifacts: documents found with the diary, and Ruth’s email correspondance as she begins searching for Nao in the present. There are several voices, then. And in several senses: there is the narrative first-person voice of Nao in her diary; Ruth’s perspective, told in third person; and then there are the voices as recorded in this audiobook. The author reads her book herself, which I love, and she does a lovely job of performing her set of characters. Oliver is stoic, a man of intellect and not emotion. Ruth is pensive; their neighbor Muriel is a bit nasal-y, and a bit annoying anyway. Nao is whimsical and impatient, sometimes immature and sometimes resignedly dour: a teenager indeed. The audio performance is absolutely perfect. It’s always comforting knowing we’re hearing the voices the author does.

The story expands and swells like a less well-packaged diary would have done in the ocean waters… We learn about Nao’s family, her depressed and defeated father, her no-nonsense mother, the deeply loveable Jiko, and more. It turns out that there is a thread of suicidal thoughts in her family: her father makes several suicide attempts, which they do not talk about; and his uncle, Nao’s great-uncle, died as a kamikaze pilot in WWII. Call that a reluctant suicide, perhaps. Three generations, then, dealing with tendencies to suicide in very different ways and originating in very different places. Meanwhile, Ruth’s family includes a now-dead mother who had Alzheimer’s but experienced a relatively sweet decline; Oliver is a decidedly quirky but, I felt, very likeable guy. He is a self-taught naturalist seeking to replant a preserve on their island so as to weather climate change. Even Pesto the cat plays an important role.

As the title indicates, this is a story about time, about moments, about whether we control the past or the future or even the present. As in the quotation that heads this review, the phrase “time being” takes on a new meaning here, in Nao’s dreamlike, imaginative ruminations. Ruth and Nao are both distant and very close together; the question of how far or near takes on a mystical quality, as Ruth worries if she is going crazy (or developing her mother’s disease – a worry I’ve seen in people I know too). Under Oliver’s wise guidance, even quantum physics comes into play late in the book, where I got quite lost but I think (hope) that I followed the ideas, the feeling of mystery and wonder.

Ruth Ozeki is a remarkable writer. This tale is multi-layered: mental health, the bendiness of time and space, linguistics (Japanese and English and also French, the bendiness of language, too), literature, and the love and personalities of animals… there is something here for everyone. For example, I thought of my father every time Oliver worries over the trees he’s planted in the preserve. Technically, the species he’s chosen violate the covenant of the trust because they are not native to the region; but he’s planted them for the climate-changing future, when species move north, and he’s put great thought into his choices, and the idea of destroying them is indeed heart-breaking. This issue is glancing within the book, but clearly opens up into something large and thought-provoking and timely – qualities that apply to every aspect of A Tale for the Time Being. Add to all of this Ozeki’s pitch-perfect performance, and I can scarcely recommend this audiobook highly enough.

And speaking of bendiness, consider the similarities between the author Ruth and the character Ruth. Of course I have 100 questions about their boundary lines. And what of Nao’s washed-up diary? What is its real-world equivalent? There are some mind-expanding puzzles here to be sure. It’s delicious.

Note: Ozeki (as herself) comments at the end that the print version includes footnotes, illustrations, annotations, and appendices. She appreciates the audio version very much for some reasons – she writes for musicality and sound, and loves its immediacy – and the print for others. Hopefully my mother, who is finishing the print version now, will have some thoughts to share with us about those differences. I suspect audio first, followed by print, is the right order.

If you love cats, trees, or people; if you’re interested in history and legacy, the power of words, or the questions posed by the passing of time – then this delightful, expansive novel is for you.


Rating: 9 crows.

4 Responses

  1. Wonderful review; it must be a wonderful book indeed. I will read it.

    Did you really craft this sentence?
    “The story expands and swells like a less well-packaged diary would have done in the ocean waters…” That is truly, beautifully inspired (even poetic, I might add.)

  2. I loved this book. Enjoyed your review too!

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