Book Review: A Tale For The Time Being

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'A Tale For The Time Being' by Ruth Ozeki. Photo / Supplied
'A Tale For The Time Being' by Ruth Ozeki. Photo / Supplied

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
(Text Publishing $40)

Set in Japan and on an island off the Pacific coast of Canada following the Japanese tsunami, A Tale For The Time Being has two narrators, Japanese Nao and American/Japanese Ruth, who are worlds apart yet eerily connected.

When Nao's journal and assorted other material, entombed in a Hello Kitty lunch box, washes up on Ruth's island, their lives are woven together.

Nao, a 15-year-old Japanese girl, writes about her dysfunctional falling-apart family, her antipathy for school (and her repugnant fellow students) and her love for her 104-year-old grandmother Jiku, a Buddhist, anarchist, feminist nun.

Jiku's son, Haruki #1, was a reluctant kamikaze pilot in World War II and his journals and letters also form part of the narrative.

Nao also writes about French maid cafes, bullying, perverts and suicide; indeed, her journal begins as an extended suicide note.

When Ruth finds Nao's diary on the shore of her scantily occupied British Columbian island, it couldn't have come at a better time - because Ruth is a writer struggling with a manuscript and this engaging and personal work is exactly what she needs to kickstart her own story.

The conceit is that a conversation of sorts is struck up, separated by time and geography.

For all Nao's overt teen perkiness, to begin with at least, this tale contains some very dark elements - rape, suicide attempts, 9/11 and the devastating 2011 tsunami.

Big themes and lots of them, but it works. And, as a window into modern and historic Japanese culture and kanji (Japanese characters), it's fascinating for that alone, with over 160 footnotes relating to linguistics, not to mention appendices on mattersas diverse as zen, quantum mechanics and Schrodinger's cat.

While not as magnificent as Ozeki's first novel, My Year Of Meat, A Tale For The Time Being is an engaging, bittersweet work, dwelling on the outskirts of magical realism.

At times it's a trifle self-conscious (a writer called Ruth writing about a writer called Ruth who's having trouble writing) but overall, it's a gripping glimpse into the lives of two not-so-very different women - one whose life is being tossed on the stormy sea of adolescence, the other who feels her existence has been becalmed, at least until a journal falls into her hands and things rev up ... for the time being.

Elisabeth Easther is an Auckland writer.

- NZ Herald

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