Review: A Tale for the Time Being
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is a postmodern novel that explores the tragedy of the human condition. Yasutani Nao, a Japanese school girl who has spent most of her life in America, writes a diary detailing her life and her decision to, perhaps, commit suicide. Her diary comes into the possession of Ruth, a middle aged writer, when it washes up on the beach of the Canadian island she lives on. Together, the two narratives intertwine to interrogate the various tragedies that befall both women. And it is that entanglement, separated by several years, that ultimately saves both women.
I honestly love this novel. The various voices are distinct and extremely well done.
And it forces me to think about how people interact, even separated by time and place.
There are some things about the novel that bug me to no end, though.
For one thing, Nao undergoes tribulations that would make any grimdark fantasy writer proud. She is the subject of intense bullying at her school. So intense and extreme that I, personally, have to wonder, within the world of the text, why no one seemed to notice what was going on. The abuse is so obvious and organized that the school administrators should have been aware of it. (Her parents do become aware of it, but due to both of their failings, they are largely powerless to stop it until it is almost too late).
I understand that one of the themes of the novel is triumphing over the most crushing adversity. But the bullying is, honestly, just too much.
In many reviews I’ve read, Nao’s story has been much preferred over that of Ruth’s, but I actually find Ruth the more interesting character. Nao’s problems are obvious. They pound the reader over the head with their excess. Ruth, on the other hand, faces subtler, and no less frightening, problems.
As much as I love this novel, there is a bit of being cheated.
Nao’s diary purports to be telling the reader (Ruth) the story of her great grandmother, Yasutani Jiko. But, in fact, the story told is that of Nao herself and, later, her great uncle Yasutani Haruki. While Jiko comes off as an amazing cipher and mentor, whether or not her story is actually told is irrelevant to the text as a whole. Rather, it is Nao’s development of her “superpower” and the conscience of the two Harukis that form the core of the diary.
The other bit of being cheated comes from an award that this novel is up for. The Kistchies are a set of awards that are aimed at speculative fiction.
Is A Tale for the Time Being speculative? I, personally, would say no. There is a scene, the denouement, where Ruth’s dreams may be temporal projections, which alters the history of the text. But while this occurrence might be magical realism, or even Canadian gothic, I would not call it speculative. Nor is any of the literary quantum theory engaged within the text exactly speculative. Rather, this is what modernist and postmodernist literature is. The whole point is to explore the nature of fiction and reality.
That A Tale for the Time Being engages in the same dialogue should not be surprising. I can see the argument for calling this novel speculative. It does “speculate” about the nature of reading and reality. And the time traveling dreams are a speculative trope. But, again, I do not think this novel is exactly speculative. What sf elements are present are not essential to the text.
Despite that, I do love the mixture of genres present. And I do love the novel.
Even if I will never look at Japan the same way again.