While I was home in Idaho this summer, I had the chance to meet up with my fellow English teachers from the middle school I taught at for nearly a decade. In that time, we each tried to nurture a love of reading within hundreds of students, searching for books to connect with young adults who had a wide span of reading ability. My personal love of YA literature grew in that time period, and during the school year, most of my reading was focused on middle school level books, but one fellow teacher was my lifesaver when it came to keeping me abreast of literature outside of my classroom needs. This woman read voraciously (and was an amazing teacher- I still don’t know how she does it all!) and often dropped by my classroom with a stack of books she thought I might like. When we all met up a few weeks ago (with a shou-tout to truly tasty Sandbar Restaurant in Marsing, Idaho) , true to style, she brought an entire box of books to share with the group. I think I ended up with five of them and with bags already bursting at their weight limit, I did some quick reshuffling to make sure all five made the trip to DC and then on to Malaysia, as there is nothing recommended by this woman that I would not give a shot. A Tale for the Time Being was in that pile.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is an interesting look at the lives of two families who live on opposite sides of the world. Nao, the main narrator, is Japanese, but after living in the US with her family for the majority of her childhood, defines herself in terms of American pop culture and mannerisms, which makes her family’s financial ruin and return to Japan all the more difficult. Not only does she have to deal with their new poverty, but also the culture shock that comes with moving home to a place that doesn’t feel like home at all. As her father fights depression and survives several suicide attempts, she must find her place in this land where she doesn’t want to be, keeping a journal of her growing desire to no longer be a part of this new world.
On the opposite shore of the Pacific Ocean, Ruth, a novelist (although with nothing to show in recent years) living on an isolated island with her quirky husband, finds Nao’s journal washed up on shore after the terrible earthquake/tsunami of 2011. Ruth is instantly drawn in by Nao’s writing, feeling a connection to this teenage girl that goes beyond their shared literary interest. But, it takes Ruth time to realize that Nao is no longer the angsty teen who wrote the journal, as it what written well-before the devastation of the tsunami. Nao is either a grown woman, living a life of her own, or, she has tragically committed suicide, as she plans through her writing. Ruth can’t not find out more about this enigmatic young woman from across the sea.
Overall, the storyline is well-laid out and Ozeki’s writing is full of compelling details and descriptions. I was especially drawn to the story of Nao’s great uncle, who was forced to become a kamikaze pilot for the Japanese Air Force during World War II. But, with that said, there were a few things that really turned me off to the book as a whole, but my largest complaint was when the book delves into the world of the fantastic. I’m just not a fan of the sudden appearance of a ghost or otherworldly being in a novel that beforehand was strongly realistic fiction. When I was studying Spanish and had to take Spanish literature classes, I could just never get into these “fantastico” stories that were so prevalent in the writing. Magical realism is not my forte and at times, A Tale for the Time Being swung that pendulum pretty heavily.
A smaller, although still annoying, part of the book that I couldn’t get out of my mind was the way Ruth treats her husband. She claims to be in love with him, but she is also quick to make snide and hurtful remarks to him. This strange relationship, while not a huge plot point in the novel, was one that just felt unfinished or underdeveloped.
This novel was okay. It is definitely not something I am raving about, nor would I recommend it across the board. If I had a friend who was very interested in certain topics, whether it be Japan or the aftermath of the tsunami or western Canada, I would not hesitate to point out this title, but it isn’t a book I would buy a friend or family member as a gift. Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being earns just: