Following the critical acclaim for her last two novels, My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003), it is perhaps no surprise that Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being has been received with equal literary approbation. Ozeki’s current offering is a seamless fusion of semi-autobiographical narrative, ecological perspicacity, and philosophical meditation. Beautifully crafted, this story of the complex nature of familial love holds the reader’s attention throughout. Ozeki’s prose is natural, uncluttered, and yet highly profound. This is evident in her engaging discussion of widely diverse traditions from theoretical physics to Zen philosophy. However, at no point, does one feel overwhelmed by such abstractions. Rather, the reader is left with a sense of having been enlightened in a way that is neither dogmatic nor laborious. As the title suggests, Ozeki’s talent as a teller of stories informs her imaginative presentation of the intricate interconnection between such disciplines: one becomes as invested in her characters as her convictions.
A Tale for the Time Being begins with sixteen-year-old Nao “sitting in a French maid café in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present.” As the narrative develops, the reader discovers that the life and struggles of this young girl form one half of the novel’s temporal bilocation. The novel’s second self-referential, middle-aged protagonist, Ruth, and her discovery of Nao’s diary washed up on the shores of Desolation Sound, British Columbia, provides the framework for the work’s seemingly earlier action. Time and space, however, are not linear or one-dimensional in this novel, and a real-time relationship between the two ‘time beings’ is established as a compellingly constructed affinity. A ‘time being’, Nao writes, is “someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or ever will be…”
The sometimes clichéd depiction of the troubled teen is given renewed candor, depth, and incisive humour here, as the bond between Ruth and Nao intensifies by way of the former’s progress through the jettisoned journal. This psychic nexus is conveyed by Ozeki as that of the creator and his/her creation; the writer and his/her work. In aptly existential styling, we are never truly certain if Nao is responsible for the existence of her diary’s recipient, or if in fact Ruth is the conjurer behind Nao’s invocation. Ruth is a writer too after all. In any case, together they are “making magic”.
Ruth and Nao are joined by an array of equally appealing, if enigmatic, secondary characters from the obstinate feline, Pesto (formerly Schrödinger), to Nao’s morally conflicted and suicidal father, Haruki. However, it is the teenager’s one-hundred-and-four-year-old great-grandmother, Jiko, who acts as the spiritual heart of this book concerned with the “human desire to make beauty of our minds”. A Buddhist nun, and outspoken feminist in her youth, Jiko is the unassuming fount of knowledge to whom her great-granddaughter frequently turns in times of hardship. Through Jiko, Nao and her father are able to reconnect after years of emotional atrophy following Haruki’s dismissal from his job and the subsequent decline of his mental health. In keeping with Ozeki’s desire to understand the interrelationship of the creator and the created, A Tale for the Time Being is also a story about the social and psychological dynamics of parent and child. Written by Ozeki in “a bit of a grief fog” following the death of her own mother from cancer, the novel’s preoccupation with memory and the memorialisation of those loved ones now lost to us allows for an incredibly sensitive and insightful portrayal of human loss in the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The dead speak through this book in more ways than one but the effect is neither morbid nor hackneyed. Ozeki is truly deserving of the accolade conferred by a place on the Man Booker Shortlist. Whether it goes on to win the award remains to be seen but it is a thoroughly enjoyable tale for the time being.