“A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki


“Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time.” – Carl Sagan

Ruth Ozeki was no doubt familiar with this quotation, for she certainly embraces its spirit in her novel. Sagan’s quotation, from the original “Cosmos” series, also includes the following: “What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are printed lots of funny, dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head – directly to you.” Ozeki even mentions a similar sentiment, noting that “…the ancient Greeks believed that, when you read aloud, it was actually the spirits of the dead, borrowing your tongue in order to speak again.” I think it is easy for those of us who read often – or maybe not often enough – to overlook the magical quality of the act of reading. One of the triumphs of Ruth Ozeki’s remarkable novel, “A Tale for the Time Being” is that it helps us to remember the amazing and almost supernatural relationship between a reader and a writer.

The book’s title is also a play on words, not meaning the common expression in usage today of “for the time being.” For Ozeki and this novel, “A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”


It would take too long a post to summarize Ozeki’s complex novel, but if I had to do it in a few sentences I would describe it as a dual tale of a sixteen year-old Japanese school girl, Nao (pronounced “now”, get it?) and an author Ruth (hmm…) “halfway across the world” in British Columbia. The two become linked when Nao’s diary (carefully preserved by being wrapped up in multiple plastic bags inside a Hello Kitty lunch box) washes up on shore near Ruth’s home. Ruth becomes obsessed with the diary and life of her correspondent, (who seems quite aware of the magical writer-reader relationship) assuming that it is the part of the first wave of flotsam produced during the Fukushima earthquake/tidal wave disaster of March 2011. The further she reads in the diary, the more her own grip on time seems to loosen… Nao also writes in her diary – about her diary – that “It feels like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you’ve found it you’re reaching back to me!”

(Below: Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” also was prominently featured in Ozeki’s book)


Highlights of the book include Nao’s special relationship with her great-grandmother Yasutani Jiko, a Buddhist nun. Many of my favorite parts of the book take place at the mountain retreat where Jiko resides. Be warned, though, that there are parts of Nao’s story that are disturbing or unsettling and which the very sensitive reader may find hard to read. If there is a flaw in the book it’s that I did find the character of Ruth’s husband, Oliver, a little too good to be true. He seemed to know everything. Whenever a question came up about some erudite knowledge he seemed to know all about it. A little too convenient, but useful to advance the story I suppose. All in all, though, still one of my favorite few books of the year. You may have heard the title among the finalists for the 2013 Mann-Booker prize. It ended up losing out to Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” which I have now added to my TBR list – It must really be something if it beat out “A Tale for the Time Being!”

(below: some of the “gyres”-natural ocean currents- that perhaps helped bring Nao’s diary to the hands of Ruth. Oliver knew everything about these, too. 🙂 )


Have you read this remarkable book? If not, what’s the hold up? 🙂 If yes, what did YOU think about it?

One good, professional review I found (in the LA Times) may be read here: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/mar/21/entertainment/la-ca-jc-ruth-ozeki-20130324

(Below: I loved this picture from Ozeki’s website. What a feeling it must be to sit in front of a stack of one’s books like that! – Reminded me a little of Walter White’s pile of money in the self-storage unit in “Breaking Bad”…) 🙂


The author’s website: http://www.ruthozeki.com/

breaking bad