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Book Reviews

A Tale of the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki


Reviewed by Erin Dela Mattia in Existere 33.1

Sixteen year old Naoko "Nao" Yasutani plans to kill herself. Forced to move from California to Tokyo, she deals with bullying at school, a suicidal father and a distant mother at home, and considers her life to be a waste of time. After spending the summer with her 104 year old great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun, Nao finds a purpose—a goal to accomplish before she commits suicide: to record the life of Jiko.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Ruth, an author struggling to write a memoir about dealing with her mother's Alzheimer's, finds a lunchbox containing a diary, an old watch, and several letters washed up on a beach. She immediately turns into a detective in a mystery novel. Who is Nao? What happened to her? How did her diary end up where it did? Is she alive or dead? Can Ruth help her?

Nao becomes the focus of Ruth's life as she attempts to connect all the slight and sometimes fleeting pieces of information she finds in the diary, the letters, and on the internet. Nao never tells the story of Jiko. Instead, she tells the story of her own life in Japan, in great detail and with such tension that Ruth desperately wants to help her.

However, the novel is not solely about Nao and Ruth. Rather, it is about the characters they interact with and how all those people connect in the time being of a single person. Or, in this case, of two people reaching out to each other from different places and times. It is about how bits and pieces of lives connect and overlap in unexpected ways. The novel is about time—time itself and being a person in time. It's about memories, one's own and those of others. It's about writing and the relationship between writer and reader. The sheer complexity of the concept of "the time being" engrosses the reader totally, making them think a little differently after they put the novel down.

"Do you know what a time being is?" Nao asks at the beginning of the novel (3). "Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you," she continues. A Tale for the Time Being fulfills Nao's promise.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is published by Viking Canada. ISBN 978-0670067046. 432 pages.