Magazine article The Spectator

On the Beach

Magazine article The Spectator

On the Beach

Article excerpt

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki Canongate, £20, pp. 422, ISBN 9780857867964 About halfway through A Tale for the Time Being I had the uncomfortable feeling that this was going to be a reincarnation story and that I would soon discover one of the main characters (Jiko, nun, novelist, anarchist, feminist and importantly great-grandmother) to have been reborn as Ruth Ozeki, author of this - this what? A novel with Japanese footnotes, six appendices and a bibliography; a memoir; a semi-autobiographical meditation on time, climate change, history, or all of these? It was a relief to find I was wrong, though fair play, Ruth Ozeki does happen to have a Japanese mother and to be both a novelist (My Year of Meat, All Over Creation) and a recently ordained Zen Buddhist priest.

The pleasure of this book is the way in which, with its inclusive references to everything, from history to quantum physics, Buddhist practices to literary theory, Silicon Valley to Japanese temples, it stretches the boundaries of the novel while managing to remain intensely readable.

The gist of the story is that a semifictional novelist, name of Ruth, living on a remote island in British Columbia, discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach containing some letters, a watch and the diary of a troubled Japanese teenager.

It's thought that the box is part of the debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. The diary soon has Ruth desperate to find out the fate of the mysterious schoolgirl, named Nao.

This is a message-in-a-bottle story writ large. It's also - and this is its greatest strength - a coming-of-age story. Too much in one book? Not really. Ozeki divides the narrative mainly between Ruth and Nao, with each being given between 11 and 14 pages alternately. There's such a clear construction to the book that the reader feels in safe hands all the way through.

Ruth's sections can become a bit tedious, whereas Nao's diary is unfailingly vivid, dramatic, sassy and moving. …

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