This book lingered on my Kidle for a long time, definitely since before I started blogging in 2015. Somehow first I could not get drawn to it and then once I started blogging and moved to reading a lot more paperback it really got stuck in the back shelf. But as it happens the last few years my holiday is the time when I dig out my kindle books. Given the limitations of luggage it still is by far the best solution to make sure you have all the books you want at hand. So during my August 2019 vacations in France I finally dug in.
And I was smitten! What a great book! It brought back the joy of reading I felt in high school and university. The sheer joy of picking a book at random and enjoying it so much. The joy of a treasure finder.
The book intertwines two storylines, but also puts them in a conversation with each other. On one hand we have Ruth, a writer with a writing block, living with her husband Oliver, on an isolated island off the shores of British Columbia. One day on the beach she finds a HelloKitty box. When she opens it she releases, like a genie from the bottle, the voice of Naoko or Nao. Nao is an American-Japanese teenager and Ruth has found her diary, a watch and some letters in Japanese.
Naoko’s voice is confident, very self assured, not in an arrogant way but in a matter of fact way of ‘this is who I am’. Despite her difficult situation we get the impression she is solid. For the first 14 years of her life Naoko lived with her parents in California. Then a disaster struck and they had to go back to Japan, completely uprooting Naoko. She never felt Japanese, her parents were going back, but she was going to a foreign country. She was not accommodating well and quickly got singled out by the school bullies. Her father struggled with work, her mother completely immersed in hers to compensate. In this ocean of unhappiness one steady point for Naoko was Jiko, her grandmother, a Buddhist monk.
Naoko writes the diary to share Jiko’s story. But she shares a lot more, her own story, her thoughts and musings, her suffering and happiness and everything that is part of growing up. And Ruth reads like she cannot stop, pacing herself but obsessively continuing nonetheless, as if by reading Naoko’s words she can save her. She suspects the box got to their small island carried by the ocean gyre after 2011 tsunami that hit Japan. Ruth becomes more and more obsessed with Naoko’s fate and starts trying to locate her or her family in any way possible.
But this book is not really about plot, it is about character development, the emotions, the thoughts, the change. Because they all change. Ruth remembers her bustling New York life, that she gave up, with some resentment. Nao learns from Jiko about the ‘time being’. Forever fascinated by the nature of NOW she contemplates time and tries to grasp it, stop it, freeze it if possible. Where Ruth contemplates her loss, Nao decided she has nothing left to lose, everything was taken from her already. She does not despair, instead seems to take it all stoically, while she makes a decision to kill herself. Ruth becomes frenzied when she discovers that. Their stories seem to be developing at different arcs, that inevitably must come together.
As Ruth is trying to regain any meaning in her life, Nao without any problem admits hers is meaningless. What she never stops, though, is asking questions, Nao is insatiably curious. And Jiko fascinates her, so she learns for her. I must say at least half of the charm of this book is Nao’s voice, rarely you get a narrator so well developed. The other half is probably down to Jiko…you can clearly see I wasn’t all that in love with Ruth’s story, but I think it’s only because it feels so familiar, so western, while Nao is western, but what happens to her could not be further from it.
It’s a beautiful moving book, and it really makes you think about time and what we do with it. It’s difficult to put in words what makes this book so good, other than the words themselves. Like beads on a string one after another, strung together to give us something special.
The book was published seven years ago, so it is also interesting to see how many things changed. And yet climate change is still around, more than ever. We haven’t really done much to stop it. So many things to think about while reading this book!
Quotes from A Tale for the Time Being