It’s normal to review a novel after you’ve finished reading it. Then you hold the whole book in your mind and decide what it meant to you: what you liked about it, what you didn’t like about it, how it made you feel, what it made you think about and whether it was worth your time. It’s a tried and trusted method that I’m going to abandon here because “A Tale For The Time Being” is not that kind of novel.
“A Tale For The Time Being” is as much about what you think with every page that you read as it is about what you will think when you’ve finished reading all the pages. Both views are not only valid and valuable but necessary. They reach into the heart of what this novel is about, how we are beings in time. This is simpler and more complex than it sounds. When I read a book, including this book, of course, time is always on my mind. I pay attention not only to what I am being told by the page I’m reading but how that links to the pages that went before and what I think/hope/fear will happen next. I construct the narrative afresh with every page I read in a flicker of thought that I am no more conscious of than the refresh rate on my computer screen.
So I want to capture my reaction to “A Tale For The Time Being” as I go along. I’m about a third of the way through now and I already have a lot to think about.
The novel starts for the first time, with the fresh, unedited, first-person voice of Noa, a Japanese schoolgirl, capturing her thoughts in her diary. Except that, from the beginning we know two things that show the voice is disingenuous: she is writing the diary for her reader, not herself and she declares that these are the last days of her life but doesn’t explain why.
The girl’s voice took a while to get used to. I’d bought a novel. I was getting something else. I wasn’t sure I liked it. The young girl wasn’t sure I’d like it either but she’d decided that if I didn’t like it, I wasn’t the one for whom the novel was written and recommended that I give it to someone else.
That was the first idea to hit me between the eyes. I liked it a lot. I think that that is the perfect relationship for books and readers to have with one another.
The novel starts for the second time when Ruth (who seems to the be a version of Ruth Ozeki) finds Noa’s diary in a Hello Kitty Lunch Box, washed up on the shore of the island she lives on in Canada. Ruth is written in the subjective third person as a linear narrative that interacts directly with her reading of the diary. Ruth seems a little lost, distant from her present, unable to write about her past, despite having spent ten years working on a memoir and slowly allowing herself to realize that her future may have to be very different from her now.
Nao and Ruth have a kind of Yin-Yang feel to them. Nao was raised in California and feels that in her heart she is American. Ruth is an American of Japanese descent who has lived and worked in Japan and now finds herself on a Canadian island, carried there from Manhattan in the wake of her husband’s need to return home. Noa’s first-person account and Ruth’s reaction to it become a kind of dialogue across time.
About a quarter of the way through the novel, Noa explains that her 104-year-old great-grandmother, once wrote an “I Novel”. I wasn’t sure what that was, except that I suspected that I was currently reading one, so I asked the great god Wikipedia for enlightenment. HERE’S what I was told.
Of course, Noa is writing an I Novel. It is autobiographical and it shows some things about her, like when she tortures a classmate for information, holding a knife against his throat, that are dark and damaging but it is struggling to be a truthful account of who she is. It’s too early in the book for me to tell yet, but I think the whole thing, including the Ruth parts, is a form of I Novel. If this is the case, then having Ruth Ozeki read her own novel version to me in the audiobook is a masterstroke.
So, the main things that have struck me so far.
This novel does something new and original with form, not in order to show how clever the author is, but to help the reader see things with fresh eyes. The blend of North American and Japanese thinking and story-telling produces a narrative alloy that is stronger than either. I want to find out what will happen next but I also want to go back, as new information and ideas emerge, and rethink my impressions of the things that have already happened in the novel.
OK. Time to read some more. Then I’ll come back to this.
For much of Part Two, Ruth is in the background. She is working with others to understand the meaning of the artefacts she found, getting texts in Japanese and French translated but finding that it is as much the connections and the perspectives that the translators bring that surprise her than the words they produce. I wonder if this is a reflection on the process of writing. The work that produces the words is solitary but the things that give the words their meaning, being read by others who make connections that may not have been in the writer’s mind but are none the less valid for that, is, if not collaborative than perhaps communal. Everyone on the island knows about the artefacts that Ruth has. They are public in the way that published text is public and their meaning emerges in a similar way.
Ruth’s husband is an artist/botanist/science-geek who makes almost mystical connections between obscure climate data and day-to-day life. He speaks of gyres in the world’s oceans, the migration of crows, and the physical movement of Japan towards Canada as a result of the Fukushima earthquake as if they were all things that shaped his day-to-day life. On his lips, science becomes just one of many competing and overlapping stories that try to give meaning to what is going on.
Ruth becomes more and more worried about holding on to herself: concerned that she may fall prey to Alzheimer’s like her mother, wondering if how her life became so unreal to her, regretting that she cannot write. She funnels these concerns into a desire not just to understand Noa’s story as a story, as you might expect a novelist to, but to confirm its reality, as if, by doing so, Ruth will confirm her own existence.
Most of Part Two is dominated by Noa’s summer-long stay at her great grandmother’s temple. Oddly, while I can easily and willingly suspend my disbelief in other novels to accept the existence of vampires and witches and werewolves, I struggled to let myself accept the reality of Noa’s encounters with the spirits of the dead in this novel. I WANT there to be an alternative explanation yet it is clear that Noa believes in her encounters.
Noa’s time at the temple, the love she receives there and the strength she builds are evoked with an emotional clarity that tugged at me. This is how all children deserve to be treated. The insight’s from Noa’s great-grandmother are profound and kind, sometimes tinged with sadness and often lit with humour. The letter’s from Noa’s great-uncle, a philosophy student forced to become a soldier and then choosing to become a Kamikaze pilot to “regain agency over my life” a beautiful and sad and gave me a view of the Japanese side of this war that I’ve never seen before.
I’m going into Part Three of the book in a more sombre mood. I’ve started to share some of Ruth’s anxieties to prove Noa’s existence and understand how her diaries and the other contents of the Hello Kitty Lunch Box, left her possession.
The sections of the book that describe the final attack on Noa at her school and her reaction to it and the other things that happened on that day were tough to listen to but, somehow, the quieter, less dramatic account of how she spends her time at the French Maid Café were worse. The pressure of bullying, driven by contempt and hatred, the depravity that comes from treating people as things and not beings, the courage that it takes to live a life that has so little love and so much evil in it are hard to bear.
Then Ruth, a writer, a novelist, for whom fiction is a dream she can live in for months at a time, lives in fear that she has lost her grip on time and memory becoming lost and confused, something I find it very easy to imagine.
And then, finally the secret diary of the Sky Soldier, so full of cruelty and evil and yet told with such humanity that tears are the only possible response.
What started as a light book, written by a cheery schoolgirl with a precocious grasp of philosophy, has deepened into something serious and challenging, something that reminds me that we must choose how we will act in order to shape who we will become.
Writing like this leaves me in awe. What must it feel like to be able to see the world this way, to hold it in your mind for the months it takes to write a novel, to pass on your thoughts in a kind of hologram, where every fragment of narrative leads to the whole worldview, and to wrap those thoughts in emotions so vivid that they feel lived, not just imagined?
So now I have finished reading the book (or rather, having it read to me by the author, which seems like a very privileged position to be in) but I have not finished thinking about it. That is a process that will run on for some time.
In the last part of the book, Ruth Ozeki makes a leap that will either make or spoil the book for many readers. She moves away from the “normal” narrative conventions of a novel, embracing the three unities of time, place and action, albeit with two different timelines, and allow her novel to embrace ideas that combine Zen mysticism with the quantum physics “multiverse” view of the world. She explores the boundaries of dream and memory and science and magic. She challenges us to think of ourselves as Time Beings with multiple concepts of time and complex and indirect means of exerting agency and making choices.
Personally, I found the twist appealing. At the beginning of the novel, I saw Noa as problematic while I took Ruth for granted. Noa was a construct, first-person story that may or may not be real or true whereas Ruth, the reader is grounded in an unquestioned reality. Yet writing and reading bring together the imagination of two people and who is to say which one is more real.
I was also pleased that, having had her “Sliding Doors” moment, Ruth Ozeki took us back to Noa’s narrative in a way that satisfied my need to know and left just enough unknown to keep me hungry.
When I first started to write this review, my draft headline, based on the first twenty percent of the book, read:
“A Tale For The Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki – Startlingly original, deeply engaging and yet easy to read this novel about – well – life and what it means to live one.
Now that I’ve completed the novel, I can’t let that stand. “Startlingly original, deeply engaging” certainly. “Easy to read” not so much. It is at points painful, even repulsive to read. The content is uncompromising and the presentation is vivid. At other points, the author asks the reader to do some work, to think rather than just read, to add meaning, not just extract it.
It is a novel about life and how to live it but dualism is fundamental to this novel. As our Buddhist nun explains: “Up. Down. Same. Note Same”. So life cannot be described without death and both become a choice. Suicide is central to this novel but it is meant to be suicide as agency, not suicide as surrender.
So what should the headline be?
Go back to the beginning of this review and see 🙂
If you’d like to hear Ruth Ozeki reading “A Tale For The Time Being”, click on the SoundCloud link below: