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A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki When I first began to listen to this book, I was disappointed and gave up. Thankfully, I tried again a short time later because this author read her own book, and she does the most amazing job with the different voices and varied expressions of the characters. It is not even necessary to know the name of the character because the voice she uses is so recognizable. Often, Japanese quotes are read and translated. There is no problem with those moments; rather they take on a special beauty of their own. When she speaks with the voice of Nao’s great -grandmother, a Buddhist nun, it is mesmerizing, and the reader will be transported to her Buddhist temple and feel the serenity she imparts with her gentle words and manner of speaking as she reaches out to the reader and preaches simple ideals about how to live spiritually well, without over emphasizing religion itself. Nao’s voice, on the other hand, is typical of a hyperactive, confused teen, while Ruth’s is the voice of an older, more mature person. I think listening to this book would be my preferred choice because the printed word could not convey, adequately, all that the author was able to convey with her voice.
At times, the story seemed gruesome and yet this brilliant author used words so masterfully, that even gross situations were tolerable and often described with some humor to lower the temperature of the heinous behavior portrayed. Even when Nao’s morality is compromised, it is dealt with, with a light hand, so although the reader might be enraged to discover the depths to which she had to descend in order to survive, the way Nao describes the experience, softens it. Reduced to its simplest terms, the story is about a troubled teenager and a troubled novelist who is trying to locate her. How they interact over time and through it , is the way secrets are revealed.
When Nao’s father lost his job in America, they were forced to move back to Japan where Nao, as an outsider, is bullied and abused by her classmates. Living in Tokyo with her disappointed mother and depressed, suicidal father, it is no wonder that she has a dysfunctional attitude, as well as negative thoughts about herself. Her often bizarre reactions and behavior are direct results of her lack of respect from others and her own lack of self esteem. The description of her school and home environment is spot-on and totally without guile.
Ruth is of Japanese heritage. She lives in Canada, on a remote island with her husband Oliver. She is supposed to be writing a novel about her mom who suffered from Alzheimer’s and recently died. She has hit a writer’s block of sorts. While walking on the beach, she comes upon a plastic bag and brings it home to throw it out. Soon, however, she discovers the bag conceals some letters, a watch and a diary. She sets out to try and discover who wrote the diary from the clues within its pages.
Nao’s name, pronounced now, is important to the title for Nao thinks and writes about time and its meaning with regard to several characters that are explored. With words that would fly from the page if I was reading, rather than listening, the author discusses the most complex ideas in simple terms to make the message clear. The importance and meaning of life and death is explored. Loyalty and duty to one’s own conscience is investigated. Justice, shame, guilt and the consequences of certain behaviors are studied. The brutality of Nao’s classmates is peeled back like the skin of an onion and the reader will feel her humiliation and her pain. At the same time, they will feel the shame of her kamikaze great uncle. Often, also, there is humor when you would least expect it, to make the subject matter, which is sometimes shocking, more palatable.
Nao’s relationship with her “104” year old great grandmother is beautiful; it is loving, kind-hearted and compassionate. It is she who helps Nao understand life and how to deal with it.. The reader is immersed in the life of Nao and, at the same time, in the life of Ruth, across time. I don’t think Ruth is as well developed but she serves the purpose of bringing out Nao’s story exceptionally well.
The reader will be forced to ponder whether or not magic exists, whether or not the future can change the past, whether or not there are spirits, as legends and myths suggest. It was so beautifully written, that even at times when it might seem a bit confusing because of the interjection of fantasy, it was a joy to read (actually, listen to) with its philosophy of peace and geniality, with its presumption of innocence rather than guilt whenever possible and prominently presenting the idea of giving one the benefit of the doubt. In the end, the reader will wonder, did Ruth change the course of history, did Nao survive the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, did Nao reach into the future to help Ruth, as well, to find a true purpose for her own life? Was magic afoot? Using metaphors and allusions, the author has created a beautiful story that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.