A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A cover of stripes, from top to bottom: yellow with the eyes and nose of a young girl's face; Light blue with a dive bombing plane reads A Tale; deeper blue with waves reads For The; mint green with a red book read Time Being; yellow with a brown field and pine trees

by Ben H.

“Time itself is being and all being is time…In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.” 

Dōgen

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is a lovely book. Part meditation on time and presence, part drama, and part mystery, Ozeki balances her story between two narrators connected by a diary written in the shell of a repurposed copy of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust. 

Nao is the teenage author of the diary. She now lives near Tokyo with her mom and dad. Nao faces bullying, parental drama, homesickness for California, and severe depression. Ruth, a novelist, now lives with her husband on a remote island in British Columbia. She faces writer’s block and homesickness for Manhattan.

Nao’s diary washes ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox and Ruth becomes fascinated with it. Nao’s diary is witty, emotional, and bracingly frank. Ozeki phenomenally recreates the way a diary juxtaposes the quixotic and the realistic, the banal and the devastating, the humorous and the tragic. Nao is viciously bullied at school. The bullying is brutal, both physically and emotionally. Nao reports it to her diary in a light tone, but it’s heavy stuff. Suicide is also a common topic in the book, as multiple characters plan to kill themselves. Nao finds refuge from the bullies when she is left with her 104-year-old grandma Jiko, a feminist Buddhist nun, in a crumbling monastery in the mountains for the summer (ghostly hijinks ensue).

Ruth (the character not the author) fills her chapters with lovely descriptions of the natural world. In her displacement, Ruth doesn’t face anything as dramatic as Nao does, but Ruth is out of her element. She’s still searching for her identity on her new rural island. One of my favorite parts is when Ruth takes another diary from the Hello Kitty lunchbox (Nao’s great uncle Haruki #1’s secret diary written in French to hide it from his commander in the army) to Benoit to be translated. Benoit manages the dump on the island and has carved out a perfect little niche for himself, complete with a library full of books rescued from the garbage. Managing a dump on a remote island might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it sounds nice to me.

In some structural ways, A Tale for the Time Being reminds me of Don Quixote (Ozeki even makes a Don Quixote reference). There are embedded narratives for everyone. There are hidden diaries and lost books and real texts and fake texts. Nao even reports in her diary on the texts she sends to Jiko while writing her entry. The transference of meaning between all of the texts, the way they bring new elements to the story or change the context, creates a rich background for the main thrust of the narrative. I totally escape reality when I get lost in a story buried in another story. Instead of getting immersed in ONE book, I’m immersed in a letter reported in a diary reported in another diary reported to me through a character in a book. I’m gone.

Ozeki, a Buddhist priest, fills the book with quotations from Buddhist masters. Even Ozeki’s structure, the interlinking stories, illustrates Dōgen’s ideas of the connectedness of the universe. Nao explores time in her diaristic musings, as does Ruth. In Ruth’s case, she finds herself searching for lost time in a way I think we can all relate to. The internet, the great thief of time, is one of the main culprits behind Ruth’s writer’s block. Ozeki wields form, font, and white space to visually represent how It feels to waste time online, as only a person who remembers a time before the internet can.   

Sometimes you read a book and you and the book just click. A Tale for the Time Being was one of those books for me. If none of the things in my review have piqued your interest, A Tale for the Time Being also features at least one ghost, a magical crow, an episode in the multiverse, and a cute cat.

A Tale for the Time Being is available from HCLS in print format, as an audiobook on CD, and as an eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).