I came here to keep in touch with all my friends who left GR after the censorship debacle. I read a little of every genre. I co-blog at Musings of a Bibliomaniac.
A Tale for the Time Being is like one of those assorted platters you get in restaurants - there is a little bit of everything but not everything is necessarily appealing. Unlike dining, however, I'm not at the liberty to pick and choose here. Consequently, my reaction to the overall book is kind of hazy. Some portions blew me away (mostly the last quarter). Some portions made me think. Some broke my heart, some left me appalled, some put me to sleep. And then there were these parts that I simply did not understand.
I'm intrigued by this book. It is weird and inventive and very, very deceptive. It is so much more than what it claims to be. It is so dense without actually feeling dense. It is so easy to read but not so easy to comprehend.
A Tale for the Time Being is the story of two women, separated by distance and time, yet intimately bound by a relationship that cuts across all dimensions - one reads what the other has written.
Ruth, a writer living in some obscure island in British Columbia, comes across a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the beach one morning. Inside, among other things, is a Japanese schoolgirl’s diary. Bound by the hardcover of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu or In Search of Lost Time, it opens with an almost cheerful declaration of suicide by a young girl called Naoko from halfway across the world.
Contrary to what anyone in her place would do, Ruth decides to pace her reading. So she does not read any faster than Naoko would have written.
This is a story-within-a-story kind of book. Ruth reading Nao's diary is the bigger story. Nao's diary, in turn, is like a collection of multiple stories in which Nao talks about the people in her life - her great grandmother Jiko, who is a Zen Buddhist nun; her great uncle Haruki #1, who was a kamikaze pilot in WW2; her father Haruki #2, who is depressed and suicidal after losing his job. Like I said, an assortment platter.
Let's talk about Nao first. For me, Naoko Yasutani was the pivot that held this book in place. And this is a book that really needs a pivot because Ozeki likes to meander, order and reason be damned. I could count on Nao to bring me back, to engage me again, to keep me turning the pages, because how could I rest not knowing what happened to this young girl who is so ruthlessly bullied by her peers??
Sure, Nao annoyed me sometimes. Doesn't change the fact that she is the first thing I will remember whenever anyone mentions this book.
Coming to Ruth. I realized quite late that the Ruth and Oliver in the story were based on Ozeki and her husband Oliver. Well, what can I say? I just hope they are not this profoundly boring in real life.
Every time the POV switched to Ruth, I had to suppress a groan. So dry, so monotonous, so dead. Oliver is like this walking encyclopedia or something. 90% of what he says has NOTHING to do with the story. Ocean gyres, garbage patches, quantum physics... that last chapter was eerily reminiscent of my high school Physics textbook.
I read this review that suggested Ruth's parts should have been cut out entirely. Not quite possible, since Ruth plays a very important role in the book. She is the reader and Nao's story would have no meaning without a reader. But I still think a lot of things could have been edited out.
The book takes a mystical turn in the last quarter. Nao's seemingly ordinary diary turns out to be not so ordinary after all. Ozeki plays with the notion of time, letting the past and the present collide, blurring the lines between reality and illusion. Like I said, I did not understand the whole thing. In fact, I don't think I'm supposed to understand the whole thing.
Irrespective of my rating, A Tale for the Time Being is the kind of book I will remember. It is not perfect, it is not seamless, but it is not unmemorable either. This book just missed out on 4-star-amazing for me and that is mainly my own fault, I think. I did not pay attention when I should have paid attention because this book was not what I was led to believe it was.
Well, I'm still glad I read it.
Now to wait and watch what the Booker committee decides.