A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

One sentence plot

Canadian writer finds an angsty, smart Japanese teenage girl’s diary washed up on a beach and through reading it learns about her life, Kamikaze pilots, and a smattering of magic realism.


The review

In some ways it’s hard to review A Tale for the Time Being – I found myself in almost equal parts fascinated and compelled bu the Japanese parts of the story… And bored and irritated by the fairly pointless (to me) Canadian parts of the story. The author’s Sophie’s World-esque efforts to teach you something through a children’s story, and her Haruki Murakami wannabe efforts to wrap it all up with a bow of magic realism unconvincingly explained by quantum physics feels self-conscious and contrived. It irritated me so much that it had me throwing the book down to rant about it, and almost tipped me towards hating the book.
And yet, the teenager Nao has a compelling voice. Her happy all-American childhood in Silicone Valley  is replaced when her father loses his job by a Japanese adolescence of hopeless parents, harsh school bullying, and misery. Light comes in the form of her ancient great grandmother, a nun and fascinating, mysterious and jolly character who helps save Nao.
But is she saved or not? We find out through our Canadian reader, a woman I find both tedious and pointless. I like the idea of her reading the diary which Nao dubs an ‘anti-blog’, rebelling against the current online culture of posting one’s thoughts to the world by writing a diary intended to be found and read by one and only one reader. But is there a link between their two lives across time and space? I feel there must be, but I just don’t see it. I almost flicked through the Canadian pages, were it not for the added details about Nao that the tedious Canadian woman was uncovering. I cared a lot about Nao’s character and story. It was sad and beautiful and had an interesting voice. I wanted to know what happened. I loved reading parts of it. I just didn’t get why the Canadian characters were there at all. They added little but a tedious, pretentious and frankly annoying plot device that made me wonder if I was just too stupid to get it.
I’ve read quite a few reviews of this book that are both positive and vague… they give me the hunch that reviewers feel they ought to appreciate it, but secretly, don’t. The book has a vibe of  worthiness. I’m not keeping the secret: I found this book to be lovely in parts… but that is overridden for me by its pretention. Either it thinks it is cleverer than it is – or else it is far too clever for me. Who knows. But I hate that it’s on the Booker Longlist when the poor Last Runaway isn’t!
Verdict: 3 out of 5 shoes

One thought on “A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

  1. farmlanebooks

    Thanks for the kind comment on my blog!

    Congratulations on starting your own blog – I love your honest writing style!

    I had similar thoughts on this book, but it didn’t annoy me as much as it did you. I agree about the quantum physics stuff not working, but I didn’t have a problem with the Canadian sections. I found it all compelling and although it wasn’t quite as wonderful as Murakami it had some good Japanese atmosphere. I’m not too disappointed it is on the Booker longlist, but your comments about ‘The Last Runaway’ intrigue me – I will have to read it at some point 🙂



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