To clarify: we are all ‘Time Beings’. We live in time and if we live well we should be aware of every instant of our existence. There are some very compelling Zen concepts to mull over as you enjoy this novel. Ruth, a writer, who has the same name as the author Ruth Ozeki, finds a Hello Kitty lunch box carefully sealed in plastic wrapping washed up on a beach near her home on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia. Inside the package is a journal, an old watch and a collection of letters. The journal is disguised behind the cover of Proust’s, À la recherche du temps perdu, and was written by a sixteen year old Japanese girl named Nao. So there is a possibility the package washed ashore in the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 tsunami. Nao grew up in Silicon Valley, California where her father was a computer programmer. When the programming industry experienced a major setback Nao’s father lost his job and her family was obliged to return to Japan. Nau was brutally bullied both physically and mentally by her fellow students who punished her for being more American than Japanese. Nau finds her life so unbearable she plans to commit suicide but before doing so she wants to tell the story of her great grandmother, Jiko, who is a one hundred and four year old Buddhist nun and was, in her youth, a bluestocking revolutionary. There is a great tragedy over shadowing Jiko’s life. She lost her gentle, thoughtful son during World War II when he was conscripted into the Japanese air force and singled out to be a Kamikaze pilot. His is the watch as are the letters that arrived in the package with Nau’s journal. His story is part of Jiko’s and by inheritance, Nau’s as well and is told in his own words through his letters. Nau, of course was born long after World War II and never met her uncle while he was alive but does meet him during the Buddhist feast of Obon when the ghosts of family members are allowed to return to the living world for a single night.
The chapters alternate between Nau telling her story and Ruth trying to unravel the mystery of who this girl is or was and indeed if she ever existed. Ruth who is a novelist by profession has stopped writing in the middle of a memoire about her recently deceased mother. However, she is not only grieving the loss of her mother she is also questioning her decision to leave behind the life she lived in New York for a quiet reclusive life on an island that is wild and sparsely populated (and even has wolves for heaven’s sake !!!). With the arrival of the journal Ruth abandon’s her writing and becomes the reader as Nau, the writer sends her words out into the great broadcast of the world not knowing where they will end up or who will read them. It is the writer’s destiny to produce words and not know where they will go or who will read them but as the writer, Nau is compelled to write by a need to tell all the stories in her head and is left to imagine who will eventually be her future reader.
Nau is a sweet funny girl who ends up in a great deal of trouble. She is saved by what might be thought of as miracles or maybe magic. Ruth’s husband, Oliver sees these miracles as a demonstration of the principles of Quantum Mechanics. Could it be that the ancient Zen masters understood the modern abstract theories of time and matter that modern physicists developed only very recently? Theirs would have been a very different route to the truth, to be sure.
The beguiling thing about this novel is that it can be read on many levels. What I know about Zen would not fill a thimble but I could appreciate its power as Nau learns to draw on her inner strength with the help of her great grandmother. I became completely engrossed in the lives of both Ruth and Nau as they each work their way to a better place. However if I did know something about Zen I am sure I would have been rewarded by an enrichment of my reading as Ruth Ozeki, according to the book’s dust jacket, is herself a Zen Buddhist priest.
I will just mention (because I can’t resist doing so) that there is a Jungle Crow in this book, a species of bird native to eastern Asia that was blown off course and crossed the Pacific to become Ruth’s household daemon. There are also supernatural events you won’t believe with my telling but you will when Ruth Ozeki uses her storytelling art and has Nao capable of calling back words from the pages of her journal and then has Ruth her protagonist dreaming herself back in time to change the past.
I think, A Tale For The Time Being is a writer’s book or more precisely, a book for someone who enjoys writing as much as they do reading. The energy behind this novel is derived from a sort of joyful dialectic playing like friendly a game of tennis between writer and reader.