‘A modern version of the classic message in a bottle story’ – A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

roatfttbA Tale for the Time Being is a modern version of the classic message in a bottle story.  It brings together writer Ruth and a teenage Japanese girl, Nao, brought up to be an American, but who has recently moved back to Japan with her family under a cloud of shame.  Nao begins her story by stating that she is a ‘time being…someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.’  Her suicidal father, Haruki #2, has lost his job following the bursting of the dot com bubble and has yet to find new employment in Japan.  Nao struggles with her new life.  She’s hideously bullied at school, to the extent that her classmates and teacher stage a mock funeral for her which is then posted on the internet.  As a result she spends her time sitting in the maid cafes of Tokyo’s Electric Town where she finds peace and she hopes, a friend, writing the life story of her great grandmother, Old Jiko, a Buddhist nun who is a hundred and four years old.  The account she writes is also the ‘diary of [her] last days on earth’.  On the other side of the Pacific, Ruth lives with her husband Oliver on Vancouver Island having left New York for a quieter life.  As she walks along the beach she finds a barnacle encrusted bag containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox inside of which she finds Nao’s a diary, a watch, a composition book written in French and a bundle of letters.  The diary is written on blank pages inside a copy of what was once Proust’s A la recherche du temps perduIt seems as though the bag has made its way to British Columbia following the 2011 Japanese tsunami.  The story alternates between Nao as she writes her diary and Ruth as she reads it.  Ruth finds herself drawn into the mystery of who Nao and her father are and whether either of them survive.

A Tale for the Time Being is a complex story about the relationship between a writer and her reader simultaneously separated and brought together by time, Zen Buddhism, love and loss and man’s relationship with the natural environment, but it is time itself that dominates the story even to the play on Nao/now’s name:  ‘I became obsessed with the word now….The word now always felt especially strange and unreal to me because it was me, at least the sound of it was.’  The strength of Nao’s story tricks both the reader and Ruth into believing that Nao’s story is running concurrently with Ruth’s own.  When Ruth reads in the diary that Nao is intending to commit suicide she becomes obsessed with finding the family, emailing anyone who may have had contact with Haruki #2 stating that it is a matter of urgency that she finds them.  Ruth is devastated when Oliver points out to her that Ruth probably wrote her diary over a decade before and may not have survived the tsunami that brought the diary to Ruth.

Ozeki was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 2010 and the deep human empathy in this story comes, I suspect, from her own beliefs and understanding of the human condition.  For this reviewer the character of Old Jiko was the best in the story, not to take anything away from Ruth or Nao’s characters which are well drawn and believable, but I loved the wisdom and serenity of Old Jiko.  The sections where Nao stays with her great grandmother in her temple in the mountains were the most touching and beautiful sections of the book.

Any Cop?: A Tale for the Time Being is a thoughtful, wise and often shocking story about characters that reflect our own humanity.  Ozeki’s prose is poetic and beautiful and captures the heart of man’s struggle to exist in a world dominated by the forces of the natural world.   What Ozeki has done in this book, what any great writer does, is take the reader into the moment, into the now.  Old Jiko said that to do ‘zazen’ or meditate, ‘is to enter time completely’.  A Tale for the Time Being allows the reader the same luxury.  A wonderfully written, intensely evocative story that deserves to be read over and over again.

Julie Fisher


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