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

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A Tale for the Time being

“Am I crazy?” she asked. “I feel like I am sometimes.”

“Maybe,” he said, rubbing her forehead. “But don’t worry about it. You need to be a little bit crazy. Crazy is the price you pay for having an imagination. It’s your superpower. Tapping into the dream. It’s a good thing not a bad thing.” – Excerpt from A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

‘A Tale for the Time being’ has an innovative and non-linear structure. Nao, a Japanese teenage girl, has recently relocated from California to Tokyo after her software engineer father lost his job. Nao has decided to commit suicide and as a last meaningful activity, she decides to write a journal telling the story of her great grand mother Jiko, a Zen Buddhist Nun. However, this journal is as much about her and her family as about grandma Jiko. In fact, this journal seems to be an escape route for Nao, her way to deal with her problems – extreme bullying in school, family’s financial problems, and her father’s acute depression and resulting suicidal tendencies (the idea that suicide is a legitimate means of solving one’s problem is a recurring occurrence in this novel. This is probably due to the fact that Japanese Culture is much more tolerant towards suicide.)

Travelling across the pacific ocean, this journal reaches Ruth, a Canadian author of Japanese accent who lives with her husband and a pet cat (named Schrodinger) in a remote island. Recovering from the recent death of her mother due to Alzheimer’s, Ruth is struggling with writers’ block. Alternating between a chapter written by Nao and Ruth’s reaction to it, the story moves back and forth between the past and the present, Canada and Japan, Ruth and Nao – until it all converges.

I would categorize Nao as one of the most nuanced teenage characters ever written. From being bubbly and humorous, she will suddenly shift gears to something visceral and brutal. Like being hit suddenly by a hammer when you are laughing out loud. Ruth’s character on the other hand could have been better itched out. Other characters like Oliver, Ruth’s husband, Nao’s father and mother, etc. are deliberately underdeveloped, probably to keep the focus on Ruth and Nao and present their world as seen by them.

A Tale for the Time Being is an offbeat novel. It will require patience, careful attention and some amount of thinking and introspection to fully understand and appreciate this beautiful book.

Ruth is a Canadian/American novelist/filmmaker and her earlier works include the critically acclaimed “All over the Creation”.  ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ is one of the six books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013.

Bonus Material: Ruth talking about the book

Bonus Material: Trailer of the book

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