This unassuming novel is a tour de force. It was short listed for the 2013 Booker Prize. I read and reviewed two other 2013 Booker short listed novels. “Harvest” is an extraordinary novel. I assumed it would win the prize, as it captured medieval England with beautiful prose. In contrast, “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki is plainly written. I also read “The Testament of Mary”. It has an imaginative plot. “A Tale for the Time Being” does not have an imaginative plot. I intend to read most of the other 2013 short listed Booker novels, although I am not sure I can wade into “The Luminaries”, which one the prize. At this point I think “A Tale for the Time Being” should have won the prize, with “Harvest” being a close second. As it is hard to compare books, I recommend you read all three of these novels.
The story in “A Tale for the Time Being” is simply told by two narrators. One a teenage Japanese girl who has emigrated back to Japan from the U.S. after her father lost his job in Silicon Valley. The girl is ostracized and bullied by her Japanese peer group and teacher. The father is unemployed. Both are suicidal, with her father being practiced. The girl and father are saved by the girl’s 104 year old Zen Buddhist nun grandmother.
The other narrator is a married female writer of middle-aged who is childless. A child of Japanese parents she moved to the Pacific Northwest from New York City to live with her introverted naturalist husband. Despite, or because of his intellectual foibles, he is the philosophical equivalent of the nun. A few years after Fukushima tsunami a diary and some letters wash up on shore. The diary is of a young Japanese girl who is on the verge of suicide. The letters are in French and need translation.
The story unfolds a few years apart in Japan and in Canada as the diary and letters are slowly read. The author is interested in parallel time and universe, and its one weakness in my view, is the animistic employment of a crow to join them. The novel is subtle learning experience. Japanese vocabulary is taught. It is written and defined in footnotes, and then used without footnotes as the novel progresses. Lessons in Japanese culture, Zen Buddhism, botany, philosophy, quantum mechanics, etymology, and history are all absorbed osmotically.
The title of the book is a double entendre. The “Time Being” is the living. A theme of the book is suicide and life, two sides of the same coin. The book celebrates living for the moment, as it explores suicidal variations. It juxtaposes kamikaze pilots with 9/11.
My favorite literary reference in the book concerns the history of the medlar, an applelike fruit which is best eaten rotten despite its awful smell. Apparently in Elizabethan England it was called open-arse fruit. The French called it cul de chien, or dog’s asshole. The novel notes that it plays a part in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark,
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.”
As Ms. Ozeki points out Mercutio is having fun with Romeo for not getting it on with Juliet.
This is an immensely enjoyable book. I would recommend it with caution to young adults in high school. I am concerned that those who have been bullied and are suicidal might find it too close to home. Some schools might also object to some passing adolescent prostitution.
Adults will spend their time wisely by reading this book.