This was the one book on the Man Booker Prize shortlist that I wasn’t particularly excited about. But then it was right there in front of me in the library, so it moved up on my reading list. Afterwards, I still wasn’t particularly excited about it. So here I am, trying to put my feelings of meh-ness into coherent sentences.
I guess you could say that A Tale for the Time Being has a wide scope. Novels with wide scopes are always good for raving reviews and literary prize nominations, and generally, I don’t need convincing to read them — family histories, tales of people separated by forces beyond their control, and unfamiliar settings that become irresistible the more I learn about them all excite me. Ruth Ozeki’s third novel tells two stories: In Japan, early in the 21st century, a Japanese schoolgirl called Nao writes a diary. It’s filled with homesickness for America, where she grew up, resentment for her parents who took her back to Japan when her father lost his job, and despair at her classmates’ consistent and brutal bullying. Nao is an outsider, and she does little to try to fit into her new life in Tokyo. While she drifts further away from school and her parents, she focuses on Jiko, her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun, and their family history. After a summer spent in Jiko’s temple, she begins to embrace Zen and discovers letters and diaries of her great-uncle Haruki, who died as a Kamikaze pilot in WWII.
From the very first pages of her diary, it is obvious that Nao writes it for an unknown someone, her “time being” and friend. The reader never finds out under what circumstances she sends the notebook off, but in alternate chapters we learn how Ruth, a writer living on an isolated island in Western Canada, finds the letters and diaries wrapped up in a lunchbox on a beach in 2012. Struggling with writer’s block, Ruth becomes obsessed with Nao’s story and tries to track her down. As the stories develop, Ruth begins to suspect a metaphysical connection between her life and Nao’s story; at one point she seems to change the course of it in one of her own dreams.
While Ruth Ozeki is a very capable writer, and I found Nao to be an interesting, intense, and believable character, I felt the book was weighed down with the author’s desire to fit in too many big subjects. A Zen Buddhist priest herself, Ozeki fills Nao’s diary entries with observations on Buddhism and its key thoughts. The use of a diary is a clever device — Nao can explain even the most elementary theories without awkwardly sounding like a beginner’s guide, given that anyone in the world could be the recipient of her notebook. In this part of the story, Ozeki’s specialist knowledge is craftily packed into the plot. Not so in the other half. Ruth, the narrator, happens to live in an island community filled with experts on marine biology, historical ecosystems, and quantum mechanics. Their observations and helpful asides not only make any conversation Ruth has dull and awkward, they give the whole story a feeling of too much in too few pages, of overcrowding the plot and trying too hard. Ozeki could have written several shorter stories about island life, storytelling, and quantum mechanics, or the fear and despair of growing old as the child of an Alzheimer’s sufferer. I can understand the urge to tell the big story that incorporates every subject because every author must dream of this. As much as I would have liked it to happen, A Tale for the Time Being has fallen short of that. It’s trying to hard and loses its soul in the process.