A Tale for the Time Being is a very strange novel. Broadly, a lonely and isolated writer of Japanese heritage called Ruth (who could that be?) finds a diary washed up on the beach, wrapped up with a watch and some other papers in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, on the beach in British Colombia. In equal measures, Ruth reads the diary (written in first person by a Japanese 15 year old called Nao) and has her own story told in third person narration. The story veers constantly between the very mundane of at school, poverty, loneliness through to questions of purpose, existence, suicide and time. At its core is the Buddhist idea of the butterfly flapping its wings – everything causes ripples and the ripples change history. There are multiple possible futures and, if so, there are multiple possible pasts. Until a future or a past is known, it can be anything.
Ruth Ozeki plays mindgames with the reader constantly in this dense novel; but the reader only really catches on half way through. It is quirky and eccentric; also fairly difficult to get to grips with. This is not helped by digressions in Japanese and French that are footnoted.
In amongst the philosophy, there are some excellent depictions of loneliness on the edge of civilisation in Canada, and social isolation for those who do not have career success in Japan. There are culture clashes as east meets west but Ozeki drives home a pretty forceful message that the west is not the best.
The two narratives interweave in ever less probably ways and the ending, when it comes – and it takes its time doing so – feels unusually satisfying for a text that has got so weird. I suppose that is because the weirdness is grounded in such everyday situations.
The characterisation, especially in the Japanese sections, is deep and convincing. Information is fed to the reader to allow the situation to be constantly re-appraised and people to be seen in new lights. The people in Canada feel more like devices designed to allow ideas to play out – but as devices go, they are good ones.
A Tale for the Time Being is not going to be a light read. Don’t take it to the beach – not even one in British Colombia – but give it room to breathe, just stick with it if it gets weird for a bit and all will be right in the end.
Glad to see this one on the Booker longlist – hopefully it will last through to the shortlist.