Book review: Entwined for the time being

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 7, 2013 

A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING

By Ruth Ozeki

Canongate/Paperback/422 pages/Major bookstores/$15.95/**** 1/2

Most good books hook the reader on the first page. Ruth Ozeki's exquisitely readable third novel starts even earlier, with a title that is also a cleverly seeded pun.

To one of the two narrators in A Tale For The Time Being, this is a story written for and by a "time being", as translated from the Japanese. "A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be," writes Nao, a 16-year-old Japanese girl, scrawling these thoughts in an ultra-hip notebook in purple gel ink.

Years later, this diary is sandwiched into a Hello Kitty lunch box and swept out to sea by the 2011 Japanese tsunami. It washes up on the shores of distant Canada, where a novelist named Ruth picks it up and begins to read it as a stop-gap - a "tale for the time being" - to distract her from projects such as her unfinished memoirs and a new novel.

Both Ruth and Nao are outsiders in countries that should be home. Ruth is a New Yorker now marooned on an underpopulated island with her husband, learning to deal with a slower, more intimate way of life that is almost cloying.

Nao is American-born Japanese and returned to Tokyo after her father lost his high-paying job in Silicon Valley. She is viciously bullied at her school, her mother has had to start working to feed the family and the shame of it all is pushing her unemployed father to suicide. Nao would take this exit herself, if not for the intervention of her feisty 104-year-old great-grandmother Jiko, a novelist, nun and survivor of World War II.

Through the diary, Ruth grows to love and worry about this distant family, even as odd connections surface, tying her own life to Nao's. These include their shared Japanese-American heritage, the churning ocean currents that weave flotsam from around the world into one giant drifting mass and, most importantly, the intimacy between reader and author. This last relationship, as any avid reader will agree, can bridge time and space to create a new reality.

"I am sitting in a French maid cafe in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future," Nao says to the reader of her diary.

The phonetics of her name - "now" - are clearly calculated, as are the multiple references to popular Japanese culture, allowing a rather deep Zen concept to slip easily down the reader's throat. And Ozeki's dry self-awareness and brimming sympathy for her characters save the book from being two-dimensional. "Everything I write will be historically true and empowering to women, and not a lot of foolish geisha crap," writes Nao and she more than keeps that promise. Without giving too much away, this is a book that talks about quantum physics, Zen philosophy, the nature of love and sacrifice, and the lengths to which a parent or child would go to protect a beloved family from personal and political wars.

Ozeki has written before about alienation and identity, in the 2004 American Book Award-winning novel All Over Creation, about a Japanese-American couple, but she has hit her stride with A Tale For The Time Being. Even without its reliance on that queer quasi-magical tie between writer and reader, it is one of the most haunting adventures I have ever read. It wounds deeper than Jostein Gaarder's cunning philosophical treatise with a similar theme, Sophie's World (1991), and is as captivating as G. Willow Wilson's 2012 fantasy set during the Arab Spring, Alif The Unseen, which was recently longlisted for the Orange Prize in fiction.

I am not enamoured of books that set the author in the fictional world, but Ozeki's use of an avatar with her own name is necessary to heighten the connections between reader and writer both within the book and in real time. As the fictional Ruth reveals what are possibly Ozeki's memories of caring for a senile parent and working through the bumps in a largely compatible marriage, the experience of reading A Tale For The Time Being parallels her enchantment with Nao's diary.

Closing the cork on Ruth's and Nao's message-in-a-bottle story is an almost painful experience. I am already looking out hopefully to see what tide of tales Ozeki might next choose to surf.

If you like this, read: The Book Of Lost Things by John Connolly (2007, $17.07, Books Kinokuniya). As war rages across Europe, a young boy coping with the death of his mother finds that the fairytales she loved are coming to frightening life around him.

akshitan@sph.com.sg