Author: Ruth Ozeki
Published by: Penguin Canada Books Inc.
Date Published: 2013
A Tale for the Time Being tells the story of Naoko Yasutani, a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl as told through her diary. Ruth, a writer, who lives on a remote island (presumably somewhere off the coast of mainland British Columbia), finds a red Hello Kitty lunchbox in a plastic bag washed up on the beach. Inside is Nao’s story. Uprooted from her well-off life in sunny California when her father looses his job, and her family returns to their native Japan. Nao doesn’t fit in and she is teased to the point of cruelty and abuse. Through the diary, Nao shares her story and Ruth finds a bit of herself as life, death, and time itself are called into question.
This story was a breathtaking, tragic, and heart-wrenching observation of life and the passage of time. It looks at what it means to live and die as it addresses aspects of the human condition. I laughed and cried my way through each thoughtful and incredibly perceptive page. I can safely say that Ozeki’s piece of artwork is one of the most beautiful things I’ve read in a long time.
Nao is a remarkably intelligent girl for her young age. She is extremely observant and is internally contemplative. She understands her world in a clear, if brutal way. She is also an incredibly strong young woman. The ijime (bullying) that she endures in unlike anything I’ve seen or heard of before. Nao first reacts with violence and shame, but with the help of her great-grandmother Jiko, Nao learns to treat these hardships with peace and understanding. She demonstrates clarity and her perspective around her situation. I found it hard to relate with Nao having never known abuse like she experiences, but she is so open about sharing her situation with a reader, any reader, that it isn’t hard to feel profound sadness at her pain.
One of the greatest concepts that this novel tackles is the concept of the “now.” Now does not exist (which is interesting because Nao is pronounced the same way, and we don’t know if she is alive or dead, so Nao, “now,” doesn’t truly exist beyond the pages of her diary). Nao calls herself a time being, “someone who lives in times, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be” (3). She exists in the past, present, and future. This concept gives her (and everyone else) a pseudo-immortality and poses the question, do we ever really die/cease to exist? Do we continue to live on after death? Nao is further immortalized in writing. It creates a future for her beyond her death. For her, her written self is in the past, but Ruth as she reads, lives Nao in the present. The written diary shatters the idea of time. It establishes a bond between women across time, space, and culture. Nao finds a friend and companion in Ruth, although the two have never met, and probably never will meet. This book addresses very heavy and philosophical issues and although the story can’t totally be understood, Ozeki shares these issues in a way that is inspiring and truthful.
I had to read this book so slowly in order to take in every single detail and element, and I loved every second of it. This is not a quick, Sunday afternoon kind of read. It needs to be tasted and enjoyed in small doses, one delicious morsel at a time, or its rich flavour may just overwhelm you. The story is so large and vast. It is a story you don’t just read, you experience.