“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”
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.
Full of Ozeki’s signature humour and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.
Each month, Chatelaine magazine (a Canadian publication for my non-Canadian readers) selects a book for their spotlight book club. Each month, they also invite a wonderfully diverse group of individuals to meet with the author in order to talk about the book and the author’s motivation for writing. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a few of these events, but this week’s event has been one of the most intriguing of the bunch! Led by Chatelaine books editor Laurie Grassi (aks @ChatelaineBooks), we had a wonderful discussion with author Ruth Ozeki about her thoughtful – and funny – new novel, A Tale for Time Being.
Let me begin by saying that Ruth Ozeki is exactly the kind of author I’d love to sweep away for a long lunch or leisurely coffee break – she’s incredibly interesting and so much fun! After an introduction from Laurie, a showing of the (author-produced) book trailer and a reading from the book (she may be a self-confessed ‘ham’, but her reading was vibrant and engaging), Ozeki talked a little about the book and her own philosophy of writing.
Ozeki felt that she had to write the book after hearing Nao’s voice in her head in 2006. She felt that Nao’s story – a Japanese student writing in English – was one that needed to be told, and that called to her as a writer. She explained that she feels that writers don’t exist without readers, and that this books helped her discover the ways that a story calls a writer into being. To her, a book isn’t done and the story hasn’t been told until it inter-plays with the reader, and each reader will have a different interaction with the story. As Ruth said,
“It’s a miraculous process, whereby one object gets cast out and bursts into an array; each reader changes the tale to match their own needs.”
Bullying is a strong presence in this novel and (fictional) Ruth, Nao and the reader all struggle with what is happening to Nao. This is because this is very much a story of inter-connected-ness, both in our relationships and our general interactions with each other. There is also a strong sense of time in the story, between the time difference in the narratives and also involving two characters with differing roles with the same names (no spoilers here – read the book!). Ozeki also examines a number of different gyres – oceanic, temporal, geo-spatial, etc. It wasn’t until later – until after the tsunami that hit Japan – that Ruth realized how strong those circular currents were, and how they were affecting the story.
There was also a wonderful discussion about the idea of words as a physical object. In the book, Nao chooses to write in a journal – not a blog or a tweet or an online post, as most teens of her generation might. It is this physical journal that fictional Ruth finds washed up on the beach, and that launches the parallel narrative. Ozeki talked about the permanence of language, and of how we express ourselves so differently when words are a physical object. She referenced the stone tablets found by villagers that detail where to build – and not to build – their homes, and that likely saved them during the 2011 tsunami. These words have been read and observed for centuries, and still endure. She plays with that sense of permanence in her book, but still allowed herself a little fun in the Japanese/English translations between fictional Ruth and Nao. She also warned aspiring writers to be conscious of their fictional chronology – when is the fictional present in your story? – as good stories need to be able to move through time.
While Ruth Ozeki may claim that working in movies and television taught her how to tell a story, including how to organize your thoughts and to be concise, her most recent story is a lyrical and deeply moving one that grabs you and don’t let go until the last page.
A Tale for Time Being is published by Penguin Canada, and is available for purchase from Indigo, Amazon and your favourite indie bookstore. ISBN: 9780670067046, 432 pages.