Book review: A tale for the time being

A tale for the time beingWhat were you doing during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan?

While reading “A Tale for the Time Being” by author Ruth Ozeki, I recalled sitting in the newsroom, staring at the telly screen in aghast while monitoring Japan’s national public broadcasting station NHK for the latest footages. These images of monstrous tsunami waves sweeping cars, houses and everything along its way is etched indelibly in my mind.

With this disaster as the backdrop, Ozeki wrote this brilliant novel that has far exceeded my expectations, and is easily one of my favorite books for this year.

For starters, the introduction to the story is already a seller. A Hello Kitty lunch box was picked up along the seashore by Ruth, a writer living with her husband Oliver on an isolated island in Canada. In the lunch box, it contained a diary written by a Japanese teenage girl called Nao, and is believed to have been washed ashore because of the Tohoku tsunami. The couple then realizes that even though it is a personal journal, the writings seemed to be remotely addressed to them.

“If you ask me, it’s (diary in the lunch box) fantastically cool and and beautiful. It’s like a message in a bottle, cast out onto the ocean of time and space. Totally personal, and real, too…,” Nao wrote. “It’s the opposite of a blog. It’s an antiblog, because it’s meant for only one special person, and that person is you.”

The plot oscillates between Nao in Japan who documented her coming-of-age difficulties a few years ago and Ruth in Canada who is responding and reflecting on Nao’s words in the present. Through these two characters, this metafiction questions the relationship between facts from reality by challenging our notion of linear time and space, done beautifully with a touch of zen philosophy.

“If time simply flew away, a separation would exist between you and time. So if you understand time as only passing, then you do not understand the time being. To grasp this truly, every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time, and at the same time they exist as individual moments of time. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.”

"The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa" by Katsushika Hokusai
“The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai

These vague zen concepts are tied together with problems in contemporary Japanese society to give it real life grounding. Ozeki, who is a Canadian-American of Japanese descent, presented various subtle societal undercurrents in the Japan unknown to most outsiders, including hikikomori, people who refuse to leave their homes, and bullying in Japanese schools. For me, it was her explanation of suicide that was most intriguing.

“This feeling of alive is not so easy to experience. Even though life is a thing that seems to have some kind of weight and shape, this is only an illusion. Our feeling of alive has no real edge or boundary. So we Japanese people say that our life sometimes feels unreal, just like a dream….

Death is certain. Life is always changing, like a puff of wind in the air, or a wave in the sea, or even a thought in the mind. So making a suicide is finding the edge of life. It stops life in time, so we can grasp what shape it is and feel it is real, at least for just a moment. It is trying to make some real solid thing from the flow of life that is always changing.”

Pen this sociological/philosophical/growing up novel into your must read list this year. It will be worth every bit of your time.

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13 thoughts on “Book review: A tale for the time being

    1. Yeah, it definitely reminded me a little of Murakami’s writings because of their critical views of the postmodern Japanese society and the way they weave philosophical thoughts into their writings.

  1. I’ve read Ozeki before and absolutely loved her writing, so I will definitely make a point of reading this. Not that I needed much convincing, but this review did it for me.

  2. I’ve read a few great reviews of this book, but now I’m totally sold. A touch of zen philosophy and metafiction sounds right up my alley! Nice review 🙂

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