A Hello Kitty lunchbox. A writer on a remote island suffering from writer’s block. Musings on the nature of Time. A bullied teenage girl in Japan. A watch. A Buddhist nun. Big philosophical questions. A cat called Pesto. Proust. A suicidal software developer. Tsunamis and Twin Towers. A World War Two kamikaze pilot… This is Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being.
Ruth, a Japanese-American writer, lives with her husband and their cat Pesto on a remote island. She discovers a freezer bag with a Hello Kitty lunchbox while walking on the beach and she assumes it washed up after the 2011 Tsunami in Japan. The lunchbox contains a diary concealed as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, some handwritten letters, and a broken watch. Ruth soon discovers the diary belonged to the then sixteen-year-old Nao Yasutani, a Japanese-American girl who lived in Tokyo. As Ruth reads Nao’s diary, and uncovers the mysteries of the letters and watch, her own struggles and thoughts become strangely intertwined with this girl’s life. Ruth becomes more actively involved as Nao’s story slowly unfolds and she’s pulled into Nao’s troubles with her suicidal father, the extreme bullying she experiences at school, the life lessons by her wise Buddhist-nun great-grandmother, and the story of her uncle, a kamikaze pilot…
Ozeki’s novel is a philosophical musing, densely layered with themes like time, being, cruelty, kindness, darkness, and light. Touched with magic realism and a few history lessons, this novel invites you to take a deep breath and to slowly navigate these complex questions with Nao and Ruth. Ozeki does not shy away from prickly topics, like bullying and cruelty, and some scenes are harrowing and painful to get through. This is not a book to relax with. It should be chipped away at, digested, and mulled over. I have to admit that some of the more upsetting scenes kept me awake one night – sensitive readers, take note. But the story is filled with beautiful moments, wisdom, and kindness too and I think that’s what Ozeki’s wants to show the reader. Despite some of the darker themes, Ozeki narrates her story with a quirky sense of humour; she depicts her characters with respectful empathy and a deep understanding of the enduring inner strength of ‘beings’. You’ll enjoy this one if you like a slow, thought-provoking story packed with fascinating facts and big questions.
If A Tale for the Time Being sounds like your cup of tea, you’ll also enjoy Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. For more reading inspiration have a look at my Wild Reading List or follow me on Instagram.