In clever and deeply affecting ways, Ruth Ozeki’s luminous new novel explores notions of duality, causation, honour, and time. The protagonist of A Tale for the Time Being, also named Ruth, is a middle-aged writer of Japanese ancestry who lives on a sparsely populated island off the B.C. coast. On the beach one day, Ruth discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox wrapped in a barnacle-encrusted bag. The box contains a number of objects, including what appears to be a copy of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but which turns out to be the diary of Nao, a 16-year-old girl from Tokyo.
Ruth has been suffering from writer’s block – she’s attempting to write a memoir – and doesn’t need more distractions. But her discovery, like the novel that contains it, proves irresistible. Nao’s diary reads like a series of letters addressed to an imaginary “you.” Assuming the role of mute pen pal, Ruth is distraught when she comes to understand the teenagers’s dual aim. In the first place, Nao wants to tell the story of her grandmother, Jiko, a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun. More ominously, Nao intends to chronicle her own end: she plans to commit suicide when she’s completed her account.
Nao’s despair stems from her family’s return to Tokyo from California. Perennially unemployed, her father has been suicidal since the move. At school, Nao is mercilessly bullied, her schoolmates going so far as to hold a mock funeral for her. A temporary reprieve comes in the form of a summer stay at Jiko’s monastery, where Nao learns about her father’s uncle Haruki, a kamikaze pilot whose apparent bravery puts her father’s ineffectiveness in an even worse light.
Across the Pacific, Ruth scours the Internet for clues as to whether Nao and her father are still alive. What follows is a virtuoso bit of metafictional playfulness in which Ruth, who appears incapable of writing her own memoir, attempts to affect the outcome of someone else’s.
Though Ruth is clearly intended as a semi-autobiographical portrait of the author, it’s the character of Nao, in all her angsty adolescent dismissiveness, that Ozeki truly pulls off (here’s an author who should be writing YA novels). My only disappointment was the last-minute crash course in quantum physics Ruth’s husband offers as an explanation for the connection that develops between Ruth and Nao. We don’t need the show and tell: Ozeki’s powerful writing builds a world that feels like its own justification.