A Tale for the Time Being is about lots of things: stories, and families, and memory, and history, and secrets, and time, and moments (zen and otherwise). It’s sometimes very heavy, but often very beautiful. Part of the novel is the diary of Nao, a teenage girl in Japan whose family lived in California when she was a kid but had to move back to Japan when her dad lost his job. And part of the novel is a narrative about Ruth, a writer living on an island off the coast of British Columbia, who finds Nao’s diary on the beach and is reading it and wondering how it ended up where it did. Nao is bullied in her Japanese school, and her dad is suicidal, and Ruth is mourning her own mother and dealing with writer’s block and wondering if Nao might have been killed in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, hence the heaviness. But also, Nao’s great-grandmother, Jiko, is a hundred-and-four-year-old Zen Buddhist nun who adds a lot of sweetness and light to the story (and to Nao’s life, when Nao spends a summer with her at the temple where she lives).

At the start of the book/the start of her diary, Nao, who’s sixteen when she’s writing, says she is a “time being,” which “is someone who lives in time,” which is to say “you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be” are all time beings (3). Throughout the book, Nao and Ruth both consider time: time passing, the perception of time passing, how much time is in a life. “I’m going to graduate from time,” Nao says, when she’s considering suicide herself (6). Then she amends it: “I’m going to drop out of time” (7). Nao considers what it means to waste time, and later learns about Proust and thinks about time lost, time regained. She describes Jiko as the only person she knows “who really understands time” (24). But she herself keeps moving through time, as we do, and meanwhile, comes into contact with pieces of the past: her great-grandmother’s story, and the story of her great-uncle Haruki, and, eventually, her dad’s story.

I like the way all these stories intersect, Nao’s stories and the stories of her family members and Ruth’s stories. “Life is full of stories. Or maybe life is only stories,” Jiko says to Nao, at one point (246). I like the way the novel includes stories—continued narratives—and also moments. At one point there’s a discussion of how many moments are in a day, how many moments are in each snap of one’s fingers, per Dōgen Zenji, who lived in the 1200s. And in different ways, Nao and Ruth both end up thinking about all the little moments and all the little choices and all the little observations that make up an hour, a day, a life.

There’s so much good writing in this book—I really like Ozeki’s style. I like how Nao talks about telling Jiko about “all the little sounds and smells and colors and lights and advertising and people and fashions and newspaper headlines that make up the noisy ocean of Tokyo” (18), and how Ozeki captures some of that busy-city mood. And I love passages like the one where Nao talks about “the beauty of the plum and cherry blossoms along the avenues in Ueno Park”:

I spent whole days there, wandering up and down these long, soft tunnels of pink clouds and gazing overhead at the fluffy blossoms, all puffy and pink with little sparkles of sunlight and blue sky glinting between the bright green leaves. Time disappeared and it was like being born into the world all over again. Everything was perfect. When a breeze blew, petals rained down on my upturned face, and I stopped and gasped, stunned by the beauty and sadness. (332)

One Response to “A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki”

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End Says:

    Gosh, I should reread this. When I read it for the first time I was just blown away by the story and the writing, and it felt like it was completely by chance that I encountered the book at all. It was in one of those Netgalley seasonal book previews where they have excerpts of a lot of different books, and I was sooo captivated by Nao’s voice. Yay, I’m so glad you enjoyed!

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