Thursday, June 24, 2021

Book 290: A Tale For The Time Being

"But since these are my last days on earth, I want to write something important, too. Well, maybe not important, because I don’t know anything important, but something worthwhile. I want to leave something real behind."

Dates read: January 19-24, 2019

Rating: 8/10

I've never been able to regularly keep a diary. I did in middle school, and my mom found and read it, which meant I stopped. But even once I got old enough that the risk of someone else finding and reading my innermost thoughts was unlikely, I've never been able to get back in the habit even when I've tried. On the one hand, I wish I had a chronicle of my past, so I could go back and revisit my own record of my thoughts and feelings about the things that I've done and lived through. On the other hand, though, sometimes I'm glad that I don't have the option to do so. The things that are important, I've remembered. The things that maybe felt like a big deal at the time that have faded away...maybe there's a reason for that and it's better for me.

But not keeping a diary means that if something were to happen to me, my thoughts (besides those captured here!) would be lost forever. When Ruth finds the diary of a young Japanese woman washed up on the shore of her coastal Canadian town in Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, she assumes at first that it must be related to the tsunami. Of Japanese descent herself, Ruth (who shares virtually all of her personal details, including her name, the name and occupation of her husband, the small Canadian coastal island where she lives, and her profession as a writer with the author) starts reading it, intrigued by the life of diary-keeper Naoko, Nao for short. The teenager was born in Japan but mostly raised in America before her tech-industry-employee father loses his job and they go back to their homeland. She tells a tale of desperate unhappiness: behind in school, cruelly bullied by her classmates, worried about her father and his withdrawal from life. Her only comfort comes from her grandmother, a centenarian Buddhist nun called Jiko.

Ruth becomes more and more drawn in to Nao's story, distracting her from her own hopelessly mired writing project, a memoir based on caring for her mother in her end years, and drawing her more into the community on the island, which she's never felt connected to. She tries to find out more about Nao and her life, only to find herself mysteriously thwarted...until suddenly the boundaries between their times and worlds begin to blur. Can Ruth somehow save Nao, if in fact Nao needs saving? And can she find a way to solve her own existential crises?

I'm not always a fan of split narratives, since I think one side of the story almost always ends up being more compelling than the other(s). And there was a little bit of that here...Ruth's story wasn't especially boring or anything, but Nao's pieces were so much more interesting that I groaned a little bit internally when things went back to Ruth. And writing about writers (especially when that writer character is heavily based on the author themselves) often veers towards self-indulgence. Again, there was a little of this going on, but not to the extent that it dragged the story down past being mildly irritating every so often. It also steps into magical realism and meta-narrative when Ruth and Nao's stories intersect across time and space, and while the emotional truth of it comes through I'm not sure that it was entirely successful.

Basically, the book takes on a lot of potentially dicey elements and executes them competently-to-well, but not greatly. Even so, there's a lot to like here and I found it an intensely readable book, getting drawn into the mystery of what might have happened to Nao and whether Ruth would ever be able to find out. While I was certainly more engaged with Nao's story, Ruth was also a compelling character, and her issues were less dramatic but no less well-developed. The book is quite long, but it's paced well and doesn't drag or feel padded. It's easy to get drawn in and hard to put down, and feels like it will reward re-reading. Just as a heads up to readers, this book features a lot of very dark things, including merciless bullying and sexual assault, happening to a teenage girl and might not be the best choice for readers not ready for this kind of material for any reason. If you're able to deal with that, though, this is a very good book that doesn't quite get to greatness but is nevertheless a worthwhile read.

One year ago, I was reading: Queen of the Tearling

Two years ago, I was reading: American Psycho

Three years ago, I was reading: The Feast of Love

Four years ago, I was reading: Spook

Five years ago, I was reading: The Relic Master

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