A Tale for the Time Being is mainly the story of Nao, a Japanese teenager who has been brought up in California but is forced to go back to her home country after her father loses his job in the dot com bubble burst. Her father’s suicide attempts and the horrific bullying she experiences from her classmates forces her to contemplate taking her own life. But she is, sort of, saved by her relationship with her great-grandmother, Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun from whom she learns how to live a simpler, more meaningful life, and finds out about her great uncle, a WWII kamikaze pilot. We discover Nao’s story through instalments of her secret diary which is found washed up on the Canadian shoreline by Ruth, our other main character, a Japanese-American writer who becomes fascinated with finding out if Nao and her family really exist and if she can help her, with this quest being a distraction from her attempt to write a memoir of her mother’s decline and death from dementia and her slightly strained relationship with her artist/ environmentalist husband.
A Tale for the Time Being is, in theory, just the kind of novel I love. A wide ranging sweep of a book which takes in different countries, cultures and time periods and which sets the personal against the historical. However for some reason it just didn’t quite live up to its promise. I’m not sure whether it was Nao’s slightly irritating narrative voice or some of the Zen stuff which went a little over my head or towards the end when the book takes on a slight element of sci-fi or magical realism with disappearing/ reappearing pages and an odd dream sequence, but I just didn’t LOVE it like I wanted to. Plus, we were promised more about Jiko… Where was it? I was dying to learn more about this anarchist-feminist turned nun! I know very little about Japanese culture except that it seems very alien to us in the West so this little slice of their lives was fascinating. The letters and diary of the great-uncle, too, are very interesting and moving.
There is a lot to think about here. Life, death, time, destiny, growing up, the environment… I wasn’t surprised to learn that author Ruth Ozeki is now a Zen Buddhist priest herself. I did occasionally stop reading and ponder but I can’t say it encouraged me to consider converting! I’m glad I read it, which I did on a recommendation from someone in one of my book groups, and I did like it, but I feel a little let down as I was expecting so much more.
3 (and a half!) stars