A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki A_Tale_for_the_Time_Being

2013. Viking. ebook. 433 pages.

Read in August.

Recommendation from: Jackie at Farm Lane Books

In a nutshell:

On a rural island off the coast of British Columbia, writer Ruth finds possible debris from the 2011 tsunami: a washed-up Hello Kitty lunchbox which contains several intriguing objects including a Japanese teenager’s diary in a ziploc bag. The narrative is divided between the Japanese teenager’s diary entries and Ruth’s life and response to reading the diary.

Nao, the teenage girl, grew up in California, but when her father lost his job, the family had to move back to Japan. Quickly branded as an outsider, Nao is viciously bullied by her new schoolmates. When she is sent to live with her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun, for the summer, she becomes interested in family history, particularly the story of her great-uncle, a peaceful scholarly man conscripted to be a kamikaze pilot.


Like other readers, I found that Nao’s narrative is where the book shines most. Her voice is distinct and compelling. The section of the book where she goes to live with her great-grandmother was my favorite part. I’m perhaps showing my limited exposure to Japanese culture, but something about the scenes at the monastery made me think of the evocative spirit-haunted landscapes of Miyazaki’s films. The passage where Nao keeps vigil for ghosts during Obon especially delivered this powerful sense of atmosphere.

Ruth’s narrative added value to Nao’s narrative by embodying the reader’s response. Several times, I found myself having the same or similar reaction as Ruth to Nao’s story. When Nao describes a particular Zen posture, I felt an impulse to try it myself, though I didn’t. But Ruth does try it out. Also, in her distress over Nao’s predicament, Ruth forgets that the time period of Nao’s diary is many years before Ruth’s discovery of it. Until that reminder, I too was taken up with the immediacy of Nao’s story and had wondered whether Ruth would somehow meet Nao in person. It’s like Ozeki provided a built-in companion to the reader, someone else feeling Nao’s story with you – albeit a more powerful reader than you, since Ruth actually inhabits the same fictional universe as Nao.

The one drawback to the novel for me was Ruth’s husband who isn’t given much to do except explain things, like how garbage moves in the ocean. He is given slightly more depth when their cat goes missing, but is overall a flat character. There’s also some explanation of a surprise plot turn near the end that I thought was unnecessary.

On a random note, A Tale For the Time Being contains some of the best searching on the internet scenes I’ve ever read. Ruth’s online research encounters realistic results and obstacles. As Leslie pointed out in our book club’s discussion back in August, these internet scenes were actually rather suspenseful.

 Excerpts from other reviews:

Bookeywookey – “It is a narrative with a mission, a mission of compassion.”

Feminist Texican Reads – “For all the painful experiences she’s endured, Nao is actually quite funny. Suicidal, but funny. Her diary is written in the tone of a typical sixteen-year-old girl, and Ozeki voices that sarcastic, somewhat melodramatic humor perfectly.”

The Indextrious Reader – “The book recognizes the ability of narrative and storytelling to bend and compress time, to record and bring to life events that may be distant from us in time and space, events that we reanimate and live through as if in our present, by reading.”

Views from the Page and the Oven – “. . . towards the end of the novel, there is a particular sequence of events during Ruth’s chapter that really threw me for a loop. I really could have done without that entire sequence and the impact it had on the rest of the novel.”


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8 responses to “A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

  1. It’s been long enough that I can’t remember the surprise near the end, but I really enjoyed this one overall. Nao’s great-grandmother was such an amazing character.

  2. I only read part of this book before I put it down for some reason or other, but oddly, it’s stayed very fresh in my mind…unlike many other books. I feel as if I could probably pick this one up and just keep going, as the part I stopped on was when she first went to live with her grandmother. Good stuff.

  3. I have been holding onto this one for a long time without reading it, and then you said “Miyasaki.” And it shoots up the queue. I have a thing for all things Ghibli. 🙂

    • I haven’t seen all the Ghibli films, but they do tend to hit right at the heart. There’s a certain combination of landscape and melancholy in the Miyasaki films that I think is what spurred me to make the comparison.

  4. I loved it when the grandmother gets Nao to admit that she’s angry. All the scenes with the grandmother were tremendous, I thought. And I loved the turn the book took at the end, even though magical realism is not usually my thing.

    • That was a good scene. I also loved the scene where the great-grandmother and Nao go the store for picnic food and are confronted by the yanki girls. I think the book would have felt unfulfilled if that magic realism plot point hadn’t happened. I just didn’t like everything about how it was handled.

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