Review: A Tale for the Time Being

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Published by Viking Adult on March 12, 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Historical
Pages: 432
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher

A brilliant, unforgettable, and long-awaited novel from bestselling author Ruth Ozeki

“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.”

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine.

Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.

Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Beingis a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.

First Sentence: “Hi!”

Generally, when I sit down to write my review of a book, I know precisely what I want to say and have a pretty good idea how I feel about the book in question. My reactions tend to be clear and summing up my thoughts is not that difficult. Not so with A Tale for the Time Being. There were parts that I loved utterly, parts that bored me, and parts I’m not sure that I quite fathom. As such, this review might be a bit meandering, so bear with me.

In subject matter, though not in characterization or overall aim, A Tale for the Time Being reminds me heavily of Jonathan Safran Foer’s remarkable book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Both follow story lines in the past and the present, as a main character searches through the history of their ancestors to find meaning in life after tragedy. Both draw lines between WWII and 9-11. Both feature odd protagonists, though they are strange in entirely different ways. Ozeki does very different things with these elements, but the similarities are fascinating, and I would recommend A Tale for the Time Being to Foer fans.

The opening pages of Ozeki’s tale captured me immediately. A Tale for the Time Being opens with Nao, a sixteen-year-old girl living in Tokyo. Though born in Japan, she feels American, having spent much of her childhood overseas in Sunnyvale, California, where her father was working. When he lost his job in the bursting of the Dot-com bubble, they moved back to Japan. Nao hates it there. Her father still hasn’t found work, instead descending first into gambling and then becoming an agoraphobic determined to commit suicide. Nao suffers from the change to the Japanese school system as well, since she’s behind academically and horribly bullied by her classmates. At the time she begins her story, she’s a drop-out, a ronin, studying to take the exams to get into high school again.

What I loved about the opening, though, is how authentic and real Nao feels. She’s been through so much darkness at that point, is herself intent on suicide, but there’s something fresh, young, and vibrant about her narration. My favorite parts of Nao’s story are always those where she loses her train of thought and goes off on a rambling tangent. Her story itself is very sad, but her tangents are where you really get a look at the real Nao and how her mind works. She’s darkly funny and I was desperately hoping for her story to come to a happy ending.

Nao’s story takes place within another story, Ruth’s. Ruth is half-Japanese and living in a remote Canadian city with her husband, Oliver. An urbanite, Ruth does not love her life there. She hates the way the power is constantly out from the storms and she’s been struggling to get any writing done, cut off from her inspiration. Out on the beach, she finds a plastic bag and plans to throw it away, afraid of what might be inside. Oliver opens the bag, and inside finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox, within which are letters in old-fashioned Japanese, a diary in French, and a copy of Proust with a school girl’s writing inside, mostly in English.

Ruth’s story is both a mystery, as she searches for the ending to Nao’s story, and self-discovery. As she reads, Ruth also researches, trying to find evidence that this diary is in fact a true thing. She gets the diaries and letters translated and the story slowly unfolds around her, becoming more present to her than her actual life. There’s an almost magical realism sort of feel to Ruth’s portion of the narrative, as though there’s an actual mystical connection between writer and reader, allowing Ruth to influence the story despite the distance and time between them, though everything else is couched firmly in the real, non-magical world.

Within Nao’s story, there are others, as she learns about her grandmother, her uncle and her father. Ozeki’s got a huge focus on family and on the importance of life. She also delves into powerful philosophical themes, like the purpose of existence and Schrödinger’s cat. The title, for example, is a lovely play on words, making use of two meanings, both a tale for the moment and a tale for beings that live in time. That phrase pops up at many points in the narrative and is crucial to Ozeki’s overarching themes.

Unfortunately, I don’t really feel like I got this. I think I’m partway there, but I most certainly do not have everything all figured out, which I don’t think you’re supposed to necessarily, but I should be a bit further along. Part of my problem is that I didn’t have any clue where the story was going, having falsely believed Nao’s assertion that it would be a story about her grandmother, but Nao is not a reliable storyteller, which had already been established, so silly me. As such, I allowed myself to get bored in sections that didn’t seem important to me, because I had a predefined idea of where I thought the story was going. My expectations kept me from paying as much attention as I should have and from picking up all of the threads needed to weave the story into a cohesive, meaningful whole in my head.

All I can leave you with is that, though this novel didn’t get an absurdly high rating from me in the end, it’s one I will be keeping in my personal collection. These days, I have so many books I tend to give them away once I finish, except the ones in the 4-5 range, and a lot of the 4s I pass on as well. I think A Tale for the Time Being is one of those odd books that I will have a much greater appreciation for on a reread, because I’ll have a better idea of what to expect and be able to appreciate more the intricate weaving of Ozeki’s story.

Favorite Quote:

“And if you decide not to read anymore, hey, no problem, because you’re not the one I was waiting for anyway. But if you decide to read on, then guess what? You’re my kind of time being and together we’ll make magic!”

9 responses to “Review: A Tale for the Time Being”

  1. Giselle says:

    “First Sentence: “Hi!”” Well that’s a winner right there! I’m hooked!

    Wow your review writing process sounds so much easier than mine where I don’t now what I want to say half the time and I go on about random shit lol.

    Nao sounds like a great MC and you know what this whole story reminds me of sorta? Like minus the gothic horror of it? The Thirteenth Tale by Diane something. I think you read it. Just the way it’s presented not necessarily the story itself. I kind of love these kinds of stories though where things are all up in the air and vague so you have to kind of think about it for a while to figure out what the story was trying to pull off. I think I’d like this!

    • Christina says:

      The opening is SO cute. She’s introducing herself to the person who will find her account, and it’s adorable.

      Well, it’s more of a general I know what to say and how I feel about the book. Like, I know that it was 4 and that I need to talk about THESE things.

      I’ve read The Thirteenth Tale twice, and I can see some comparisons there too, although it’s more…ambiguous, I guess. More philosophical. But the ties between writer and reader are a pretty good comparison!

    • I bought a copy of this, Giselle. So I will be reading it as soon as I can if I can. My bought books are piling up, but I’m going to try to push this one to the head of the line as soon as I have time in between review books. I am really looking forward to it.

      And ummm, I LOVED the Thirteenth Tale. That’s one of my favorite adult books. I wish every book I read could be that could. I know not everybody loved it, but I feel like that was written almost expressly for me.

      Thanks for the review, Christina. I think it will help me get my expectations in order for reading this one so I might like it more.

  2. thebookwurrm says:

    And you’ve convinced me! I like books that play with your head and this one seems that it will be able to do that fantastically well. When I read Murakami’s works, I always finish with some befuddlement as I am never sure what exactly happened but I must be masochistic or something because I totally like that feeling! Haha.

    • Christina says:

      Hahahaha, well, yeah, I am a bit befuddled, but in a way that makes me want to reread and wrap my mind around it, not in a “I feel so stupid, eff this book way.” I need to try more of her books!

  3. Renae M. says:

    Interesting! I think that, actually, one of my least favorite storytelling methods is the type where one narrative is set in the past and one in the present, and the reader slowly learns the connection between the two. I don’t know why, it bugs me. I’m weird.

    Boy am I in a chatty mood today!

    I do like that this focuses on a Japanese person (albeit one who’s somewhat American). And reliable narratives are cool. On the other hand, I’ve read a few too many books lately where I don’t “get it”, so I’ll have to push this off until I’m in a more forgiving mood.

    • Christina says:

      I don’t think you’re alone in that, but I love it when it’s well done. Like in Iain Pears’ The Dream of Scipio. Loveeeee.

      Well, she is technically Japanese. She was just raised abroad during her formative years. Oh man, reading more than one book I didn’t get in a row would make me crazy. I would be running to the fluffy contemporaries just so I knew I would understand.

  4. Amy says:

    This sounds interesting, but sometimes I have a hard time with past and present because I feel disconnected. Not to say I haven’t enjoyed stories told in that way, it’s just not something I prefer. I am glad that you liked this one enough. It sounds like a book that I might enjoy, but wouldn’t go out of my way to get my hands on.

  5. Kayla Beck says:

    I think I may actually read this one when I get a break in review books. I love me some literary fiction, and I haven’t gotten to read any in a LONG time.

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