Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki's latest book, is a fantasy whose themes mix coming of age, environmental awareness, social and moral consciousness, and filial love. The story has two main characters: Nao, a 16-year-old Japanese girl who lives in Japan and Ruth, a writer of Japanese descent who lives on an island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. Their lives become intertwined when Ruth finds Nao's diary along with that of her uncle - a kamikaze pilot during World War II.

Nao is an adolescent weighed down by responsibilities. She spent her childhood in Silicon Valley, where her father was a software designer.  He lost his job - and hence his visa - before the economic downturn in 2008. After the family relocated to Tokyo, her father was unable to get a job. Becoming increasingly depressed, he attempts suicide. He fails but becomes increasingly remote and agoraphobic. Similarly, Nao mother is emotionally distant. She keeps long hours at work and copes with her husband by physically removing herself from the situation. Nao is left in charge and watches her father with trepidation.

Nao also endures bullying at school that borders on sadistic. Her body is riddled with scars. She is both ostracized and tormented. She seeks solace in a coffee shop in which the waitresses dress up as French maids. There she writes her diary, addressing the future recipient who will find it. The imaginary recipient is her only friend. It is not clear if she tosses the diary into the ocean upon its completion, or if it is swept up in the devastating tsunami that hits Japan in 2011.

Either way, Ruth finds it while walking along the beach. Ten years have now passed since Nao wrote her diary. Yet Ruth feels so drawn into Nao's story that she becomes distraught over her fate. She forgets the time difference and resolves to change the girl's fate as well as that of the father. Ozeki toys with the concept of time and the writer's ability to create her characters and control their lives. Or do characters assume lives of their own as the plot unfolds?

A Tale for the Time Being is an unusual book with sympathetic and quirky characters. Ozeki blends issues of moral conscience with an original plot. Readers of Ozeki's previous fiction will welcome this new addition to her oeuvre.

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