Summary (from Goodreads):
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in a ways she can scarcely imagine.
Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
The story starts when Ruth, the novelist, finds Nao's diary ashore and starts reading it. Nao has an endearing voice, and her story sucks you in and doesn't let you go, even though the pacing is slow. Her diary is deceptively simple - Nao is written in an upbeat teenage voice which lulls the reader into a false sense of security, while she is in fact recounting atrocious experiences. She plans on committing suicide because of the ijime (bullying) she has suffered, because of her inability to adapt to Japanese lifestyle, because his father has lost his will to live and her mother is distant, and because she is being pimped by a French maid café hostess. Her story becomes bleaker with every chapter, and it's really heartbreaking and stomach-turning to read. It's overwhelming.
Nao's story is interspersed with that of Ruth, the author who happens to find Nao's diary, thus becoming Nao's reader. Ruth is also a maladjusted woman - she has trouble focusing on her work and fears dementia ever since her mother Masako died from Alzheimer complications. Her marriage with artist Oliver isn't in the best of places, and she resents trading New York for a lost island in British Columbia. All of this adds up to make Ruth the perfect reader of Nao's diary - she is uncomfortable in her own skin, which helps her lose herself in Nao's story.
Ruth the character is very similar to Ruth Ozeki the real novelist and filmmaker, although I'm sure there are some differences between the two. At some point in the story, Nao introduces us to her great-grandmother, Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun. Before she became a nun, she was a radical activist and feminist, and the author of a fictional autobiography. This is the cue for Ruth the character to explore the concept of the I-novel, or Japanese fictional memoir. A Tale for the Time Being is exactly that, a modern version of the traditional Japanese I-novel, and a very intelligent one. I also appreciated the metafictional devices (footnotes, appendices, a story within a story, characters semi-aware of their function as characters...) and the surge of magical realism featured in Ruth's dreams. I wasn't expecting that Ruth had such a relevant role in the development of Nao's story, but I liked it.
A Tale for the Time Being is a dense novel with impeccable style. It gives much food for thought, and deals with a vast array of topics: bullying, violence, feminism, memory, writing, reading, creation, suicide, Buddhist Zen, 9/11, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, WWII kamikaze pilots. It all feels natural and interesting. That's why it upsets me that such brilliance is mingled with not-so-good bits and lost in new-agey mystical life guidance, which prevented me from fully loving this novel. In any case, I'm glad I've read it.
Have you read this book? Please, leave a link to your review in the comments and I will link you here!
This book counts for the Adult Fiction category of the Reading Outside the Box Challenge 2014 that I'm participating in.