The fact that I just now got around to reading this book is proof that no matter how hard you try, you can't in fact read all the notable books the week—or even the year—they come out. A Tale for the Time Being was published in 2013 and was a Booker Prize finalist that year. It got a lot of hype; I remember the colorful cover from when a local bookstore was advertising an Ozeki book signing. At the time, I thought, “Oh yeah, that book sounds good, but there's no way I can get it read before the event,” and with the urgency gone, it quickly settled at the bottom of my pile.
I'm glad it popped back up on my radar this year. And I'm not even kicking myself for putting off reading it as I've done with other books in the past, because as the title serendipitously suggests, this book came around for me at just the right time.
A bit of background: author Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest, and she weaves in elements of it throughout the book, along with hefty doses of modern Japanese culture and quantum physics. My upbringing was so thoroughly Western and my education so geared toward the humanities that this book really challenged me, and I think if I'd tried to read it before fully devoting myself to reading books and publicly writing about them, I'd probably have rushed through and missed a lot of what Ozeki is saying here. (Though I should note that I'm absolutely certain I still missed quite a bit. However, at least now I'm at a place where I have the maturity necessary to slow down and think deeply about what I've read.)
A Tale for the Time Being is two stories in one, a structure I never seem to tire of. Ruth, a novelist living on the western coast of Canada who bears a more than passing resemblance to Ozeki herself, finds a package washed up on the beach one day. Inside is the diary of a suicidal Japanese girl named Nao. Ruth and her husband Oliver assume the diary was lost in the 2011 tsunami in Japan and rode ocean currents all the way to their secluded little town. As Ruth reads the diary and immerses herself in Nao's story, she starts to question everything, even the nature of reading itself. It seems as though just by reading Nao's words, Ruth has taken on a role in the girl's life and its ultimate outcome.
My favorite part of the book was Nao's diary. Her voice is so fresh and funny, even as she details the horrendous bullying she suffers at school and her strained relationship with her parents. She is absolutely believable as a teenage girl who doesn't always make the best choices or think about the consequences of her actions. I felt much more distanced from Ruth's character, which strikes me as odd, considering the degree to which she may or may not resemble the author herself. For whatever reason, I had a harder time parsing her motivations and summoning empathy for her.
Still, I was enthralled with how Ruth's and Nao's stories converge—and unless you dabble in quantum physics, you won't begin to guess all the ways they're connected. A Tale for the Time Being is one of those books that refuses to be rushed; if you take your time and keep an open mind, your efforts will be rewarded.