Once again, we must thank the AWP conference for guiding me toward some fantastic literature. I saw that Ruth Ozeki was doing a reading and I had seen some buzz for A Tale for the Time Being last year, so Ozeki made my list. One of the best decisions I’ve made this year.
The story switches between Nao, a sixteen-year-old girl from Japan who is trying to tell the story of her grandmother, and Ruth, a novelist on an island who finds Nao journal and tries to put together the information she discovers. As Nao tells the story of her grandmother, she ends up telling the story of displacement and finding a home, the story of a girl who is learning to find her place in the world. Ruth sorts the information Nao shares, determining what is true and if perhaps, she can change the story.
The most beautiful part of the story is the way that Ozeki examines the relationship between the reader and the text with Ruth and Nao’s journal. As Ruth reads, she so desperately wants to intervene, to help Nao find old friends, to reconnect with those that might have been lost in the tsunami. Ozeki perfectly captures a reader’s anxiety as a character makes bad decisions or is in danger. She poses the question every reader ponders: What if I can change the ending?
The novel revolves around the central theme of a time being, which Nao describes as such: “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.” Time crops again and again, as the reader wrestles through theories of quantum mechanics and zen.
In many respects, this book was pretty far outside my comfort zone. I’m not mathematician, alternate universes and timelines make my head spin, and I haven’t had much exposure to Buddhism or Japanese culture. It took me quite a few pages before I could fully get into the novel. But despite the differences in culture, what initially connected me with the novel was Ozeki’s appreciate for words, emotions and life and how beautifully she could write about them.
“Both life and death manifest in every moment of existence. Our human body appears and disappears moment by moment, without cease, and this ceaseless arising and passing away is what we experience as time and being. They are not separate. They are one thing, and in even a fraction of a second, we have the opportunity to choose, and to turn the course of our action either toward the attainment of truth or away from it. Each instant is utterly critical to the whole world.”
“Sometimes when she told stories about the past her eyes would get teary from all the memories she had, but they weren’t tears. She wasn’t crying. They were just the memories, leaking out.”
Her words are powerful, her wisdom is profound, her humor is superb. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.