A Tale For The Time Being

I’m reading again.

And this is the first time I’m writing a book review after college. A decade has passed, my friend. So where to start?

The book I’m writing about has this Japanese statement on it: Genzaichi de hajimarubeki. It means, “You start where you are.”

I have never bought a book because of its cover. But back in February, I did. Considering I have downloaded the Goodreads app on my phone, I didn’t even bother to consult it. Can you blame me?

That’s a really pretty cover.

I can take lots and lots of pictures of it, honestly.

But did it make me feel something new? Did it make me feel anything at all?

The answer is yes.

A Tale for the Time Being is a truly beautiful novel. 

Ruth Ozeki starts the story by introducing to us two interesting female characters: Nao and Ruth. They exist in totally different realities. The story begins when Ruth, a woman living on a remote island in Pacific Northwest, finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the coast. Inside it were a lot of trinkets, including the diary of a Japanese teenager named Nao. 

Nao: There’s so much to write. Where should I start?’ I texted my Jiko this question, and she wrote back this: ‘Genzaichi de hajimarubeki.’*

*You should start where you are.

As we read further, we are taken into Nao’s current mental state and we see her as a very quirky, expressive young woman living in Japan.

Nao: My old Jiko really likes detail, and she likes it when I tell her about the little sounds and smells and colors and lights and advertising and people and fashions and newspaper headlines that make up the noisy ocean of Tokyo, which is why I’ve trained myself to notice and remember. 

Jiko is Nao’s  104-year-old great-grandmother. She is a Buddhist nun.

Nao: I asked her once why she liked to hear stories like this, and she explained to me that when she got ordained, she shaved her head and took some vows to be a ‘bosatsu‘. One of her vows was to save all beings, which basically means that she agreed not to become enlightened until all other beings in this world get enlightened first. It’s kind of like letting everybody else get into the elevator ahead of you. 

The diary tells us of Nao’s difficult school years as she struggles to adjust to life in Japan after living happily in California before the dot-com bubble bursts and her father loses his job. She is relentlessly bullied at school, sees her parents become more and more disconnected from her and the world around them, but decides that before she will end her life, she will first document the life of her . As Ruth makes her way through the materials included in the lunchbox, she becomes more and more entwined with Nao’s life and fears, which help her connect with the island neighbours she has resisted.

The breadth of this novel is extraordinary. The number of themes is extensive but never overwhelming. Ozeki manages to thread these together without overburdening the reader, but also with an authenticity: the characters do not just experience limited pressures in their certain periods of their lives, just as we do not as readers. A Tale for the Time Being acknowledges that we are all only here for a short amount of time – we experience life as “time beings”. Just as Nao cannot be expected to deal with her parent’s own mental health as hers undergoes its own extraordinary pressure, she may at times focus on love and family, but at other times must focus on her own survival. This also brings the novel an unpredictability that kept me turning page after page, never knowing what Nao will face or Ruth will grapple with next. 

Both characters wrestle a great deal with their sense of place, where they see their true home, both having transplanted themselves (or having been transplanted in Nao’s case) from what they consider to be home to in many ways a new, more difficult one. As such they struggle to know how to act, how to communicate with others and what to make of themselves in these new surroundings. This means that A Tale for the Time Being is a coming-of-age novel for Nao but also of sorts for the adult Ruth.

Nao: And what does it mean to waste time, anyway? If you waste time, is it lost forever?

And if time is lost forever, what does it mean? It’s not like you get to die any sooner, right? I mean if you want to die sooner, you have to take matters into your own hands. 

The ideas around how we should be as human beings are greatly influenced by Ozeki’s own practice as a Buddhist, and this is carried through the novel by Jiko. Introducing Nao to the practice of Zazen – a form of meditation – allows Nao to find a place for her own, amongst the noise of her distracted parents, her violent school and the search for her own identity as a Japanese-American not sure of where she belongs: 

Maybe this isn’t a big deal for you, because you’ve always had a home, but for me, who never had a home except for Sunnyvale, which I lost, it’s a very big deal. Zazen is better than a home. Zazen is a home that you can’t ever lose, and I keep doing it because I like that feeling, and I trust old Jiko, and it wouldn’t hurt for me to try to see the world a little more optimistically like she does.

The childlike voice of Nao both connects Ruth to her story but also echoes her own fears. Ozeki’s language is a gorgeous balance of naivety and knowledge – much like the character of Nao. There are short descriptions of the Japanese language throughout, which allow Ozeki to have her characters speak in their naturally multi-lingual state. Nao speaks English first, having spent her formative years in Sunnyvale, California while her father worked in Silicon Valley, and her resulting difficulty in Japanese and perceived ‘otherness’ is the cause of much bullying at school. But this also puts her in a unique position to bridge cultures for those around her and at time beautifully and lyrically to the reader: 

The way you write ronin is [Japanese characters] with the character for wave and the character for person, which is pretty much how I feel, like a little wave person, floating around on the stormy sea of life.

But this voice also carries gut-wrenching power at times, such as in the relationship between Nao and Jiko: 

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.

Reading this phrase brought tears to my eyes, as I thought of my own grandmother. You could see in my grandma’s eyes the thoughts and memories that she wanted to express, but could no longer communicate. Her pain and frustration were reminders of how fickle life can be, how quickly things can change. 

Ozeki walks a fine line throughout A Tale for the Time Being as to who’s story belongs to whom. What is real and what is imagined? What is a dream and what is a memory? When Ruth puts herself in to Nao’s story, seeking meaning in her own life, the truth becomes blurred. It’s another example of discovering your own stories through others. Nao puts herself in to the story of her family, finding meaning in the myths around her great-uncle, Haruki, a kamikaze pilot during the war who is coerced by the Japanese army into writing propaganda messages into letters home to family. But Haruki finds a way to remain subversive and in doing so is able to record some beautiful, break taking thoughts around grief, loss and death: 

I’m afraid my day is approaching and my next “official” letter to you may be the last one you receive from me. But no matter what nonsense I write in it, please know that those are not my last words. There are other words and other worlds, dear Mother. You have taught me that.

In the end, these questions remain. But they do so in a way that forces you to stop and think about your own life, rather than distractions that remain unresolved. Ozeki wants us to connect with the people and environment that surround us, to discover our own stories and to understand those of the people around us. She wants us to recognise that what makes people interesting is what’s hidden below the surface, the memories and thoughts that we record only for ourselves, or for those we trust. In Nao’s case, it is in the life and wisdom of Jiko; and for Ruth it is an obsession with the truth in Nao’s story that forces her to question herself. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, it matters that we open ourselves up to these stories and ideas from others. Because we are all only here for the ‘time being’, eventually we will run out of time to pass these stories on. 

Finishing A Tale for the Time Being on a grey Saturday afternoon, I needed to find some time to process the novel, feeling almost a sense of grief to lose the companionship of these characters. There is something lovely about taking a bit of time to prepare your life. 

Title: A Tale For The Time Being

Author: Ruth Ozeki

Publisher: Penguin Group

Paperback ISBN 978-0-14-312487-0

Fiction: Teenage girls, Buddhist nuns


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