Book Review: ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ by Ruth Ozeki

On a gloomy Michigan afternoon, I curmudgeonly ventured to the Ann Arbor Public Library to check out a book for a literature class. To make my dreaded feat towards the over-400- page reading assignment worse, the librarian was a little less-than-friendly when I asked her where to find said book: Ruth Ozeki’s ‘A Tale for the Time Being.’ When I muddled into the fiction aisle, a brightly colored, substantial bind caught my eye.

I was struck by the cover’s visual fortitude; a young, doll-like girl peered above a plummeting plane and rapid waves. Although I’d heard the warning many times before — “don’t judge a book by its cover”— I was compelled already.

‘A Tale for the Time Being’ oscillates between the stories of Ruth, a meta-fictitious Japanese-American middle-aged writer living in rural Canada, and Nao, a young Japanese girl living in Tokyo. When Ruth finds Nao’s journal washed up in ocean debris, she is intrigued by the crinkled contents of Nao’s story, laden with her suicidal ideations and admiration for her Zen Buddhist grandmother.

It was as if Nao was communicating directly, not only with Ruth, but with me through her beloved journal. Her narrations debunked my initial interpretation of the book’s title. A ‘time being’ is not a moment, but a noun referring to any thing, human, or entity that exists in the past, present, or future. As Nao puts it, a time being is “you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

The wise words of this adolescent Japanese girl resonated with me. I realized that through reading this book, I was engaging in the timelessness of storytelling, reading from tangible ink- on-paper, while grasping the intangible— my changed perception of time — long after I returned the book to the library slot.

I imagined Ozeki painting Ruth and Nao’s stories like Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa. Oceanic imagery flows through the pages to blatantly and obscurely describe time, history, the Japanese tsunami, kamikaze pilots, distance, misplacement, and mental health concerns. Ruth feels captive to the sea’s vastness, which physically divides her from her previous life in New York, as Nao describes her bouts of depression as a large, thrashing fish making waves in her stomach. Ruth recalls the gyres of the ocean, from which articles of history have resurfaced, as Nao feels a connection with her deceased uncle, whose body surrendered to the ocean after his suicide bombing in WWII. So many instances are determined by literal and metaphorical descriptions of the ocean, further showing fluidity between Ruth and Nao’s lives.

Although Ruth is much older than Nao, she feels an overwhelming affinity for her; Ruth and Nao share so many dispositions (not only their Japanese heritage, but a longing for the past, misplacement in their current environments, and connection to spirituality) that Ruth’s possession of Nao’s diary, by “chance,” can more accurately be described as “fate.”

In fact, spirituality and paranormality are splashed throughout each woman’s story in oddly believable ways. Nao is convinced that she has supernatural powers as an ikisudama (いきすだま), or ‘living ghost’ after her dream actions have real-life consequences. In an uncanny occurrence, Ruth’s exquisite dreams change the entire outcome of Nao’s story with physical consequences.

This fantastical aspect aroused the cynical pragmatist in me. I was almost turned off by Ozeki’s sudden switch from realism to abstraction–as deceased ancestors visited and dreams changed reality–but found myself too enthralled to care. Ozeki’s integration of the less- believable reminded me of the importance of spirituality in Japanese culture, an aspect which is certainly central to her own life as a practicing Zen Buddhist.

The idealist in me was also relieved at the turn of the story towards Ruth and Nao saving each other; an anxiety mounted in my throat at the first mention of Nao’s suicidal ideations. The theme of the beautification of suicide in Japanese culture underlined itself in big, bold letters, causing me to fear the conclusion of Nao’s journal. In the end, what Ozeki presents is not a demise of the beautiful, but recalls the solitary spirit. It is the connection of spirits on multiple levels, like the continents joined by the ocean. 

With hopefully more intrigue than spoilers, I’ll leave you with my closing impressions of ‘A Tale for the Time Being’: 1) Ruth Ozeki is a feminist icon, 2) although fictitious, Nao’s journal touched my soul, 3) age aside, leave room to learn from the wisdom of those around you, and 4) have faith in the power of fate, from wherever it may arise.

(Written by Joanna Gaden. Joanna is a recent college graduate from the University of Michigan who moved from her small town in the Detroit metro area to pursue big city living in Manhattan, NY.  She is currently the Editorial Manager at bSmart Guide, a platform which connects and mentors women.)

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