Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

From the description:

On a remote island in the Pacific Northwest, a Hello Kitty lunchbox washes up on the beach.  Tucked inside is a collection of curious items: an antique wristwatch, a pack of indecipherable letters, and the diary of a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl named Nao Yasutani.  Ruth, who finds the lunchbox, suspects that it is debris from Japan's devastating 2011 tsunami.  Once Ruth starts to read the diary, she quickly finds herself drawn into the mystery of the young girl's fate.

I almost didn't finish this book.  Honestly, I almost didn't even really start it.  The first chapter of the book opens with an overly perky introduction by Nao, an explanation of what a time being is, and speculation about the reader.  In her next section, she realizes that she sounded ridiculous in the first part (looking back, it's actually charming) and then describes the otaku sitting next to her and speculates what would happen if she went with him and let him buy her things and take her to a hotel (she decides he'll murder her).  After that, she settles in and begins to tell her story.

In the next section, Ruth, a writer who lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest, finds Nao's diary and begins reading it.  There's significant overlap in the language since Ruth is of Japanese descent and Nao had lived in America for most of her life before her family returned to Japan.  Nao writes her journal mostly in English and Ruth is able to understand or look up the Japanese parts.  The story progresses through Ruth reading Nao's diary and then interacting with people in her own life, especially regarding her discovery of the diary and her attempt to read the French letters.  Later, both Nao and Ruth begin to learn the story of Haruki #1, Nao's great-uncle, the son her great-grandmother, Jiku.

While Ruth is struggling to learn more about Nao and her family, Nao is struggling to survive.  Since her father lost his job as a programmer in America, the family had to return to Japan in significantly reduced circumstances.  They live in a tiny apartment in a bad part of town, her father doesn't seek employment, and Nao is bullied by her classmates.  Eventually, Nao's mother gets a job to try to support the family and her father, named Haruki for his uncle, sinks into depression and makes several suicide attempts.

When her parents learn the extent of the bullying, they send her to stay with Jiko, a 104 year old Buddhist nun who lives in a temple.  In addition to learning more about Buddhism, Nao also learns about Haruki #1, who studied French philosophy at the university before being drafted into an army fighting a losing war.  He volunteers to become a kamikaze pilot, partly because it would raise his rank after his death and increase the pension Jiku was paid, and partly because he wanted to choose his own death.

Meanwhile, Ruth and her husband, Oliver, are trying to learn more about Nao and her family.  They discover information not only about Haruki #1, but Haruki #2, which puts him in a completely different light.   All of this information might have an impact on the events that are slowly unfolding in the diary. (Haruki #2 isn't the only one planning suicide.  Nao is writing down Jiku's story and then plans to commit suicide herself.)  Ruth senses the urgency and tries even harder to track down Nao to save her, but, as Oliver points out, years have passed since the diary was written and they can't change any of the events.

Or can they?

A Tale for the Time Being was absolutely amazing.  I borrowed a copy from the library, but I plan to get my own copy since I think it will easily stand up to multiple readings.  The book focused on so many difficult topics like bullying, suicide, and family issues.  The most fascinating part, for me, was that almost all of the characters in the book were more than they appeared and those hidden sides repaired and strengthened family bonds.  And the truly amazing part was the ripple effect that started when Nao bought a book with blank pages and decided to commit suicide but only after she had told her grandmother's story.