I finally finished A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.(She is the author of A Year of Meat, which I loved.)
It has been a mammoth read for me for a number of reasons. The first is personal – that I have recently realised that my day goes better if I get up earlier (am more patient, so shout at the children less, so start the day feeling better about myself). To get up earlier, I have to go to sleep earlier – losing a big part of my reading time! But this book also took me longer than usual to read because of the nature of the book itself: it is complex, and layered, and involves concentration and thought – but in a lovely way! I read it on kindle and was quite surprised, when I checked, to learn it is only 400 pages in “real life”. (And I have no doubt the author would tell me that if it felt like 800 pages for me, then it was 800 pages in my reality.)
The basic story is about a Japanese woman in Canada who finds a diary and some other things washed up on the beach near her home, well protected from the sea. She starts reading the diary, written by a suicidal Japanese school girl, and the girl’s relationship with her Zen-Buddhist nun great grandmother. The parallel story of the diary, and the finder’s life, play out. A particularly interesting literary approach is that the character of the woman who finds the book IS the author (her name is Ruth, and many of the biographical facts tie up), yet is written in the third person. At the end of the book, you are not sure how much was fiction, how much was fact, and how much was allegory.
There is so much in this book: issues of ecology, trees and whales; Zen-Buddhism and the contemplative life; quantum physics and Schrodingers Cat; questions about the nature of reality; reflections on morality and choice; thoughts around suicide; the nature of right and wrong. Really, it is a BIG book. But these big themes are couched in an accessible story, about human relationships and failings, about life and pets, and at its core you could say it is a coming-of-age story too.
I loved it. But I am also a bit drained by it. I am aware of how clever the author is, and really how rather superficial my own grasp of the world is. And I like that too . . .
Of the three Man Booker longlistees I have read so far, I peg this one as the winner. The other two were wonderful books, and certainly more accessible reads. But this one goes that little bit further. It doesn’t just add to the world of literature; it adds to the readers’ concept of life.