Book Review: A Tale for the Time Being

I read a book for fun again. It's my new 2014 thing apparently. I'm so proud of myself. I'm actually looking forward to not having cable in a couple months so I can read and knit without distraction (except maybe netflix distraction...).

This book came highly recommended by a couple of colleagues. And maybe I didn't even mean to read it now but when a nice colleague takes the book out on her card for you there's this expectation that you'll actually read it instead of incurring fines on her account. So here goes!

A Tale for the Time Being
By Ruth Ozeki
2013
432 pages

Ruth is a lapsed novelist who lives on a tiny island on the west coast of BC with her tree planting husband and cat. She finds a diary, letters, and other bits in a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has washed up on shore - perhaps from the 2011 tsunami in Japan? From then on, the narration skips between Ruth's story while she reads the diary, and Nao's story, the teenage girl from Japan who is writing the diary. The whole novel is wrapped in mystery - what happens to Nao? Was she lost in the tsunami? How did the diary get to Canada? Does her father commit suicide again? Does she? What happens to her 104yr old great grandmother? And where is Pesto, the poor cat?! (Ok so the cat is a minor blip but I was worried!)

I'm a bit divided on my opinion of this book. I loved Nao's parts: she was insightful and funny and tragic and hopeful. I learned about Japanese culture, and enjoyed hearing bits of wisdom from her great grandmother, Jiko, who is a nun. This part also threw me a bit because usually I stay away from depressing books and parts of Nao's story were very sad. She wrote a lot about bullying and suicide and her life is a bit tragic. But it's worth it in the end because there's hope for her future and it doesn't end on a sad note.

However, I didn't like the Ruth parts, and for this reason it took me awhile to get into the book (like the first 150 pages). The tales of island life and her relationship with her husband were fine, but I thought Ruth was a bit...whiny? I think it's a case of seeing my future more than Ozeki's flaw. Ruth's story is integral to the mysteries in the novel though, some of which don't get solved, so together, I guess both Ruth and Nao's story make for a pretty good read.

It's a really well written book; obviously the author is an expert on both island life and Japanese way of life (or at least does a good job of faking it). There are some footnotes, but the are quite useful at explaining some of Nao's Japanese words and phrases. I didn't mind the flip flop between characters, mostly because it kept me reading because I wanted to get back to Nao's diary. Ozeki does weave a pretty good mystery throughout and does so in a way that I could actually picture what was going on - which means this book wasn't over my head or anything, just a bit slow to get started.

I'd recommend this to anyone who wants to learn a bit about Japanese culture, or someone who fancies escaping to a remote BC island because apparently life is better out there. Or anyone who wants a good read by a contemporary Canadian author that might be a bit tragic in the middle but ends in a satisfying, if still a bit mysterious way.

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