A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being
Five words from the blurb: diary, girl, tsunami, change, life

A Tale for the Time Being is an unusual mixture of Japanese and Western literature. The book begins with Ruth, a woman living on a remote Canadian island, discovering a lunchbox on the beach. The lunchbox is one of many items to be washed across the ocean by the tsunami and on opening it she discovers the diary of Nao, a teenage girl who is being bullied at school. Through reading the diary Ruth learns about Nao’s family: her suicidal father, her great-grandmother’s life as a Buddhist nun, and her great-uncle’s experience as a kamikaze pilot during WWII. Ruth develops a bond with this family and begins a quest to find them; longing to know whether or not they survived the tsunami. 

The book begins really well. I loved Nao’s modern, chatty style and quickly warmed to her; feeling as though I understood her thoughts and motivations.

I don’t mind thinking of the world without me because I’m unexceptional, but I hate the idea of the world without old Jiko. She’s totally unique and special, like the last Galapagos tortoise or some other ancient animal hobbling around on the scorched earth, who is the only one left of its kind. But please don’t get me going on the topic of species extinction because it’s totally depressing and I’ll have to commit suicide right this second.

The diary format worked well and this the first book I’ve read that successfully manages to include you tube, mobiles and the Internet without feeling forced or experimental. 

Ruth’s character was also well developed and I particularly enjoyed her vivid descriptions of life by the sea. The entire book was packed with atmosphere and, although this made the book slow to read, it was well worth the time. 

I enjoyed reading the entire book, but it didn’t impress me as much as I thought it might. The main reason for this is because the majority of the philosophical elements were familiar to me. The ideas were beautifully presented, but Schrödinger’s cat and multiple universes have been done many times before. I also found that the Japanese elements, for example the ghosts of the dead and the crow symbolism, didn’t feel as fresh and alive as they do in the hands of Murakami. It feels wrong to criticise this novel when there is technically nothing wrong with it, but the scientist in me didn’t quite accept some of the theories.

Despite my minor quibbles, the positives far outweigh the negatives. It perfectly captures life at the present time and I recommend you read it soon, before it inevitably becomes dated.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…the line between fiction and reality is not clear-cut in this novel, which makes it all the more enthralling and appealing. Bookmagnet’s Blog

 A Tale for the Time Being isn’t a bad novel, but it doesn’t need all the padding that the meditations on time and quantum physics require; I think it could be shorter and better. Necromancy Never Pays

The humanity of the novel is enormous and takes your breath away in most places. Of Books and Reading


26 replies on “A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki”

Good to see that you enjoyed this book even if not as much as you’d hoped. It’s a book that I’m very curious about. I like reading about things I know so maybe it works better for me.

I recently won a copy of this book, so am glad to hear you liked it. I listened to one of Ozeki’s earlier novels (My Year of Meats) several years ago and was pleasantly surprised. Hope to read A Tale for the Time Being soon!

It’s a pity that it might become dated, it makes sense from what you’ve said, but given that the technology doesn’t sound forced (I know what you mean with that)… If you have reason to not accept the theories that’s surely fine. It’s hard to accept ideas in books when you know they are factually wrong.

Charlie, The ideas aren’t factually wrong (I think?!) I just don’t buy the idea of multiple worlds all existing at the same time. I prefer things more rooted in reality.

Oteki’s My Year of Meats blew me away, but it felt like a very visceral, emotional book (compared to this one). Not sure I’ll get it.

Your comment — but the scientist in me didn’t quite accept some of the theories. — made me think you might (?) like Sena Jeter Naslund’s Adam & Eve. It’s got some physics/science thing going on with it. I loathed it, but others liked it.

Audra, Thanks for recommending Adam and Eve. I read Ahab’s Wife several years ago and loved it. Not sure why I haven’t read any of Naslund’s other books yet, but I’ll take a note of your recommendation and change that soon. Thanks!

I saw a woman reading this on the train yesterday and was trying to crane round to see if it was a Murakami I hadn’t read yet.

Sounds interesting though, thanks for the review.

“the first book I’ve read that successfully manages to include you tube, mobiles and the Internet without feeling forced or experimental.”

I’m finding that internet references are starting to sound more and more natural in books. I saw a reference to “a browser plugin” recently, without any further explanation, as if ever reader should be as familiar with it as they are with microwaves, which I found refreshing. (The book was Boxer Beetle).

….I just bought A Tale for the Time Being on Audio. Downloading as I write this.

John, References to technology do seem to be getting more natural, but this book managed to use them in a central way for the first time (I’ve seen) without it feeling weird. I hope that you enjoy it.

I finished reading this last night and for 390-odd pages I loved it unreservedly and would have given it 5 stars. But I’m just not sure about that chapter right at the end. I know Oliver’s style throughout the book had been somewhat lecturing, but that info-dump didn’t feel like a character speaking, more like someone reading from a Dummies Guide to Quantum Mechanics. I didn’t entirely get the science and I didn’t like it as an explanation of the book. I’d have preferred it to be left a bit more open than that, but it still left me with plenty to ponder. Personally I was far more interested in its ideas about authorship and autobiography and ‘I-novels’ and was enjoying the game it was playing in the latter stages with who was writing what and the different layers of that (Ruth Ozeki the author, Ruth [Ozeki?] the character, Nao). I loved the quantum/zen aspects when they tied directly into that (up, down, same thing etc.) but that Schrodinger’s cat and Multiple Worlds stuff felt forced and it irritated me that right at the end of the book you have to flick to the back for two appendices that interrupt the flow.
But: first 390 pages – loved every minute of them and thought they were brilliantly done. And not having read any Murakami the novel felt quite fresh to me. I hope this one makes the Booker shortlist.

Oh, and the Canongate hardback is a beautiful thing and really added to the reading experience.

David, I agree with you about the chapter on quantum mechanics – it wasn’t needed and was a bit of a let down. I enjoyed the rest of the book, but I suspect the reason that you loved it was because you haven’t come across anything similar before. I’ve read a lot of Japanese fiction so this didn’t feel as fresh to me. If you read any Murakami, but especially Hard-Boiled Wonderland, you’ll see a lot of similarities. The Schrodinger’s cat aspects have also been done better in books like ‘The End of Mr Y’ and ‘Mr Mee’. Good, but not outstanding.

I haven’t seen the hardback. I read a paperback version, but will try and find a copy of the hardback in a bookshop to admire 🙂

Unlike you, I didn’t love the beginning of the novel. The chatty style was fine, but listening to Nao’s rather graphic descriptions of perverts, etc. was too much for me. But I quickly fell in love and it looks like I’ll have to pick up a novel by Murakami as I hadn’t encountered the crow symbolism before. (Admittedly, I haven’t read much Asian literature.)

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