By Sierra Maciorowski
Heartbreakingly beautiful and terrifyingly abstract, A Tale for the Time Being’s soul lies in the delightful character of Naoko Yasutani, a 16-year-old Japanese schoolgirl with a penchant for awkward self-expression.
Her tale weaves the past, present, and future in a mindful knot, leaving the reader almost no time for his/her own affairs. Author Ruth Ozeki, through the alternating narratives of her own character and Nao’s, depicts the inexplicable connections between the so and not-so. That which is, may not be, and that which is not, must surely be if you can only examine the other side of the puzzle.
It is with this dialogue within every moment that Nao’s great-grandmother Jiko sees the world, and it is with this dialogue that Nao learns to live. Jiko is an anarchist, a feminist, a nun, and an inspiration to Nao, who begins her time with her great-grandmother in a state of uncertainty and anger. To Nao’s surprise, however, being angry is all right, even for Jiko–although the latter teaches Nao to kick at waves, rather than people more harmless than herself.
So, after facing constant bullying and jeers at her school because she is American, Nao sees a welcome respite from the terror of her everyday life when her parents ship her off to Great-Grandmother Jiko. But the change in scenery is not enough to remove her from the agonized spirits of her family history.
With a father who considers himself worthless, a great-uncle who became a suicide bomber on the orders of his government, and a mother who sometimes spends hours staring at jellyfish in the aquarium, Nao finds herself entangled in the web of disastrous results, and turns to other outlets for her own expression–thankfully, she has a diary to love and oblige.
A Tale for the Time Being encompasses decades in a single second, millennia of philosophical insight in the turn of a page, and the confusing time since the tsunami of 2011 in one blink in the eye of the author. More than that, however, Nao’s story cuts the distance across the Pacific Ocean into mere millimeters instead of kilometers.
And, perhaps, that is its true appeal. Not the litterings of philosophy, nor the historical descriptions of Japanese samurai, nor the sorrowful tale of a girl who cannot seem to find her place; rather,
Ruth Ozeki draws in her readers with the delight of time travel. The time being, it seems, includes much more than merely now.
Yet with Nao the story begins, and with the end of Nao’s narrative the reader is left alone, as Ruth herself is. Through her well-spun work, Ozeki opens the window for anything to drift in, from current events to ancient history, and the window frame created by her stylistic choices will leave you stricken by awe, in love with thought, and incapable of speaking a word.