A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Magical Realism, 422 pages
Audio book, listened June 3rd-20th
A Tale for the Time Being is a book that made me feel like crying the whole time I was reading it. I never actually did, but the tone of the book had me consistently feeling like I wanted to bawl. I always felt like I was right at the brink of something bad happening and that the next page would bring tragedy or heartbreak.
The tone, therefore, is the most poignant part of this book. It gives it that longing feeling, the one you get when you feel like you’re missing something but you’re not quite sure what it is. Reading this, I felt like I was grasping for an unknown thing, a mood or an event or a memory that I never got to claim. And finishing it left me feeling… a bit empty.
This book is told is told in dual perspective: one being Nao, a teenager in Tokyo whose diary entries we read. She, like a lot of teenagers, is a bit lost in the void. Her family life leaves her feeling out of place, out of sorts. So she turns to writing the diary and through it the reader learns of her suicidal ideation and her father’s as well. We also learn of Nao’s century-old great grandmother, the anarchist, feminist, novelist, Zen Buddhist nun, Jiko, whom Nao decides write about. Jiko I think is one of my favorite characters. For such a frail, tiny person, she definitely has one of the most pronounced personalities out of all the characters in the book.
The other perspective is from Ruth (named after the author, I realized – the character’s husband has the same name as the author’s husband. Miiiiighty suspect!). Ruth at the beginning of the book finds a piece of plastic trash washed up along the shoreline where she lives. She picks it up to throw it away and inside finds Nao’s diary, ten years after she’s written it. The story bounces back and forth between Nao’s diary entries and Ruth’s reading of them. It was a pretty neat dynamic, honestly. I rather enjoyed it.
As I said before, the tone is the most pronounced thing in the book – it’s present consistently and gives the whole narrative a somber feeling. If this book could be described using a color, it would be gray. Reading from a suicidal sixteen-year-old’s perspective is a very draining experience, especially when along with her own feelings, has to deal with her father’s suicide attempts as well. The whole thing gave me the sensation similar to that when you’re waiting for someone to run into something or fall down – you just know it’s going to happen, so you’re wincing preemptively. That is what this book felt like. I was just waiting for something to happen. It made me feel anxious.
That being said, the characters in this book all had their ups and downs. I think Jiko and Ruth’s husband Oliver were the only two characters I really liked – everyone else was very uh… I don’t wanna say grating, but kinda grating. Nao, while invoking feelings of sympathy and sadness, also annoyed me. She was bullied relentlessly but didn’t hesitate when she was given the chance to be the bully herself to someone even weaker than she was. It made me lose a lot of empathy towards her and regard her more coolly. Ruth was more bearable I think, but I kept feeling like she took her husband for granted a lot of the time. Oliver, the character, is a quiet man interested whatever project has his attention – in the book, he was in the middle of trying to get non-native plants to grow in their area. While Ruth was obsessed with the diary, he was supportive but also trying to keep up his own thing. A lot of the time, Ruth would get annoyed about this. I mean really, the dude has to have his hobbies, let him be.
The magical realism element to this story is very subtle, at least throughout most of the book. It kinda jumps to the forefront after a while. That in itself was neat – I liked the whole aspect of it. When I picked up the book, I read the title as ‘A story for now’ or ‘A story for this moment’. But ‘Time Being’ will take on a whole new connotation by the time you’re done with this book. A Tale for the Time Being. I can’t think of it any other way now. Out of all the things about this book – the themes, the tones, the characters, this is the impression it has made on me. Time is not something we experience, it’s something we are.
The biggest complaint I had with this book is something I can’t go into detail on, because of spoilers. But I’ve said before that endings are make or break for me. And this one didn’t quite pull it off. Ten-minute explanations for things aren’t the way to end a book with as wide of a scope as this one. It was jilting, how quick it came, and then it was over. And it left a sour taste in my mouth. A sour taste on top of the emptiness I felt from reading the story as a whole. It was a weird combination, and I didn’t quite know how I felt about it.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. The ending, not so hot. The characters, hit or miss. But the tone, while it made me feel empty and uneasy, made me feel. It kept me reading, wanting to know what would happen. I appreciate any kind of book that can make me do that. So I liked this book for what it was and if you want a mellow, gray but at the same time weirdly addicting book, you might like it too.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars