A Tale for the Time Being


In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine.

Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.

Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.

~ Synopsis from GoodReads

This is one interesting read. What else can you say about a book that mixes up teenage angst, depression, anti-war sentiments, with a huge dose of Zen Buddhist philosophy, and an even bigger dose of Quantum physics? It’s also a book that requires a lot of focus. It demands a slow reading, pausing every now and then to examine what it says, plus a little additional reading to bone up on the themes it talks about.

That’s where the 6-7 appendices at the end of the book come in. 6-7 appendices!!! Good lord, that’s more than what some of my technical manuals have. And it probably shows how unevolved I am that even after reading those appendices, I feel I didn’t really get the spirit of the book.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I did. A lot. But, there is this nagging feeling that I have just skimmed the surface and that there were tons of undercurrents and connections that I just haven’t caught on to.

Since I was having so much trouble getting the point of the book, I just decided to follow the below Zen principle that’s outlined multiple times in the book, and not think through it too much:

Think not-thinking
How do you think not-thinking?
Nonthinking. This is the essential art of zazen.

And once I started doing that I really, really appreciated the book a lot. It’s not a book I can say I love. There are too many upsetting things going on with it. I blogged about some of it here, but there are also tons more disturbing stuff about the role of Japan in World War 2, negative social issues faced by the Japanese today, up to and including the Fukushima disaster.

So, yeah, I didn’t love the book. I can never love a book where suicide plays such a huge part.

But, I love Nao. She starts off coming across a little immature, but as the book develops, I loved Nao’s voice, and I loved reading about how her relationship with her great grandma strengthened her and help her overcome her issues. The story alternates chapters between Nao’s diary entries, and Ruth’s reactions to them, and it’s an effective technique for keeping up the tempo of the book. Ozeki has also skilfully included difficult physical and spiritual concepts into the story without becoming prosy.

I also love the warmth, compassion, wisdom and insight with which Ozeki pieced together these concepts and stories. I can truly see why this made it to the Man Booker shortlist this year. It’s a very clever and heartwarming read and I highly recommend this book for readers who are looking to challenge themselves a little with a fresh new style of literary fiction.

I read this book as part of my participation in the Japanese literature challenge and the Man Booker challenge.

Huge thanks to Penguin Random House for sending me this book for review consideration.

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  • 5eyedbookworm

    I’d love to read the book after reading your review. I’ve had it in my TBR list for quite a while now. Hopefully I can read this before the year ends.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End

    What did you think of the end?

    There were some things in the book that I didn’t understand completely — some of the ideas Nao brings up, and the quantum physics stuff — but I loved the book anyway. I loved Ozeki’s generosity to her characters more than anything, and I thought Nao’s narrative voice was superb.

    • Nishita

      @de6d8e217d7c15514742644d4c9fae0f:disqus honestly, I was relieved that she left it open. I liked the quantum physics stuff, it was interesting how it was used in the plot. I just felt let down by the magical realism parts – the crow and the dream and in between there was this weird thread brought in about whether Ruth and Oliver were real or were they made-up characters…and it just seemed a little too much.

      • Nishita

        @de6d8e217d7c15514742644d4c9fae0f:disqus I loved Nao though…she was awesome and I was totally cheering her on.

  • I definitely agree that it’s not a book you can LOVE but it was still a book I really enjoyed. Great review!

    • Nishita

      @disqus_EvwuDmEW9X:disqus thanks 🙂

  • Tienh

    I did think the synopsis sounds really interesting but then I read a review to say that it was quite preachy and you seem to think the same too… I probably won’t read this unless somehow it falls on my lap. It will annoy me too much, I think.
    Had to laugh at the quote -sounds like a load of rubbish to me :p

    • Nishita

      @disqus_jotNjiSB7s:disqus I can’t say it seems preachy, it didn’t come across like that to me. But some aspects of the book were a little out there and while I appreciated the quantum physics multiple realities theory that explains some of what happens in the book, I think I would have preferred a more straight-forward narrative.

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