A Tale for the Time Being – Review

Book: A Tale for the Time Being
Author: Ruth Ozeki
Year: 2003
Bookhad Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered this monastery. I beg you to teach me.” Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?” The monk replied, “I have.”
“Then,” said Joshu, “Go and wash your bowl.”
At that moment the monk was enlightened.

I wish I could say that this book is hard work. It is not. It’s not as hard as getting one’s head around the Zen story here. It’s not as hard as the references to Schrödinger’s cat. It’s not as hard as being mercilessly bullied. It’s rather simple. And yet, all the difference.

A Tale for the Time Being starts with the diary entry of a teenager Nao, by which, I must admit, I was completely turned off. I didn’t want to read a book in which a Japanese schoolgirl is using purple ink to write about her life. It seems exactly the kind of thing I would do when a teenager, only that I didn’t. And we all know how such teenager diaries go – they’re about soppy stories, addled boys, parent drama – the works. However, my pre-conceived notions were put to death by some great Goodreads reviews, and I plodded on. Nao’s diary is full of the many things that abound a teenager’s life such as school and friends (or no friends in her case), the intense bullying at her Japanese school, the struggle for identity, parents and every fascinating thing that makes a teenager look at the world more closely. All of this, until you realise that Nao wrote her diary with the intention of throwing it out into the sea in her Hello Kitty lunchbox as a pre-event to her suicide.

tale for time being coverAnd this is the diary that has washed up on a Canadian shore where Ruth has found it stuffed in a barnacle-infested freezer bag along with some letters in French and a watch. Thus begins the novel by this Japanese-American Buddhist nun, Ruth Ozeki. Incidentally, the second character’s name is also Ruth who lives with her artist-naturalist husband on an island. Ruth’s life is marked by speculations about a mysterious crow, off-beat conversations with her husband, annoying-but-necessary neighbours, internet access breakdowns and their cat Pesto aka Pest. The book alternates between Nao’s diary entries and Ruth’s ecologically-driven, environment-friendly life on the island. While Nao writes about her life back in Japan, Ruth reads it in Canada and constantly worries about Nao forgetting all the while that the incidents of the diary are in past tense.

What eggs you on to read Nao’s diary is her promise that she’s writing this story to capture the life of her great-grandmother Jiko. Any review that doesn’t highlight how fantastic a grandmother Jiko is, does a disservice to this essential fictional character that fills the void reserved for those who’ve not had wonderful grandmothers. Nao’s entries about her bullying classmates who ignore her presence, conduct funerals for her, attempt a near-rape, and finally auction her knickers online, are quite disturbing to read. On the other hand, her entries about her suicidal father who tries to kill himself off at every chance he gets get sombre. However, all the portions of Jiko shine with warmth, love, and understanding. They literally light up the book. Being an anarchist-Buddhist-nun Jiko not only teaches Nao things about life but also becomes her only friend replying to Nao’s text messages from her home in the hills.

While Ruth reads Nao’s stories, she makes her furtive attempts to find any connection to Nao by searching the names of her family members, looking up the list of people died during the tsunami, and even combing through suicide forums. She tries various ways to get in touch with Nao’s family to know if Nao has died or if, by some stroke of luck, is still alive. Whether she succeeds in this task is for you to find out. Some people may say that Ruth’s portions are a little gnawing and boring, but I would like to disagree here. Ruth’s husband, Oliver, is a character that I wished would come alive and that I could meet him. He reminded me vaguely of Frank, Meg Ryan’s partner in You’ve Got Mail. Vaguely, mind you. Oliver is so passionate and knowledgeable about what he does that it’s hard not to admire him. He’s queer, fascinating, and always looks at the events in Nao’s life from a place of tangential understanding, though it may not seem like that at first. But Oliver surprised me throughout the book, and I really, really liked the character. The part where Oliver spends days and days looking for Pesto really strike me as human in a very visceral way.

A Tale for the Time Being can come across as a sombre read, but I urge you to set aside the assumptions like I did. This book is more than just a story about a woman who reads a story about a girl. It’s about the fight in humans, the compassion in humans, everything that we cannot explain, and above all it’s about time. What adds glitz is the Zen and quantum mechanics thrown in which completely challenges you as a reader. There’s so much to make sense of in terms of the story, and then there are Buddhist teachings, and the collapse of a wave. And finally, there is time. It’s the complexity of this time that we may never grasp and the ripples that actions cause across generations and across borders. In this book, there is comprehension and faith; faith and sorrow; sorrow and understanding; understanding and science; science and time.

It’s all rather fascinating.




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