A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

IMG_1969 A Tale For The Time Being is a playful novel, which sometimes seems about to crumble into its own cleverness and fade away to become part of the universe with a quiet ‘pfipp’. That it manages to stay intact is largely due to the varied subject matter, which takes in kamikaze pilots, quantum physics, the 9/11 attacks, school bullies, Buddhism, feline care, environmental matters, funerals, Japan’s 2011 tsunami and lots of other stuff which promises to keep you engaged during the bits when things become just a little frustrating. The plot: a woman on a Canadian island finds a bag washed up on the beach. It appears to contain a copy of Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche de Temps Perdu, but on closer inspection that book has been hollowed out: inside it is the diary of a teenage girl in Tokyo. The idea of a story within a story recurs throughout: as well as telling her own tale the girl, Nao (even her name, pronounced ‘Now’, suggests the passage of time), wants to write about her 104-year old great-grandmother Jiko, who is a wise nun. Ruth in the novel is a writer (so, of course, is Ruth Ozeki) and lives with a partner Oliver (a man called Oliver is praised for his ‘love and companionship’ in the book’s acknowledgments). Ruth thinks of Nao as a teenager but by the time she is reading Nao’s diary she must be in her mid- to late-twenties. So time is elided and curious connections are made: Schrödinger’s cat makes an appearance; Ruth’s cat disappears. At one point the words in the diary run out until Ruth dreams them back into being (much as Ruth Ozeki is actually doing, of course). You can let the author get away with this sort of magic realist nonsense because she provides so much else to enjoy. The book itself is surprising, occasionally annoying but ultimately highly readable. It is teasingly smart (there are appendices to help you with the quantum mechanics) and offers western readers a window into an alien world (Ruth/Ozeki provides useful footnotes to explain the frequent Japanese idioms). Rather like the surprise package found in the shallows, this is an unexpected pleasure.

 

 

 

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