First off, I will go ahead and admit that the cover of this book totally drew me in. It was getting high ratings on Goodreads and I had to at least read the summary. Couple that with a lucky find at Half Price Books and here we are. I couldn't wait to dive right into Ruth Ozeki's latest book, which has made many people incredibly excited. A Tale for the Time Being even received praise from one of my favorite authors, Junot Diaz, who said this was Ozeki "at her absolute best." I had to know more.
The Situation: Ruth makes a curious find while walking along the beach on the remote island her and her husband Oliver currently live on in the Pacific Northwest. The Hello Kitty lunchbox she finds contains a diary written in English, letters written in Japanese, and an old watch, among a few other things. Ruth suspects that the lunchbox is debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami that wrecked Japan and killed thousands. But the only way to find out is to read the diary and translate the letters. Ruth is soon sent on what appears on the outside as a wild goose trail, as she looks into the history of someone who may no longer be alive.
The Problem: The possibility that the author is no longer alive is very real. Nao Yasutani is a teenage Japanese girl who currently resides in Tokyo, but grew up in California before her father lost his job in the burst of the dot com bubble, and her family was forced to move. Her current daily life consists of being bullied by her schoolmates, sharing a crappy one bedroom apartment with her parents, and keeping her now seemingly aimless father on constant suicide watch. Eventually, since her father seems to believe there is nothing more to live for, Nao decides she agrees with him. But not until she records the life of her 104 year-old grandmother. So the further on Ruth reads, the more it appears that Nao and her father are no longer alive, because if they didn't kill themselves, it is possible the tsunami did.
Genre, Themes, History: This could easily be classified as historical fiction as much of Nao's story comes not only from her ancient grandmother, but also from stories about her great uncle, Haruki (whom Nao's father was named after), who was a kamikaze pilot during World War II. Through him, Ozeki brings in stories about the war, from Japan's perspective. And the interesting thing is that these stories don't paint the Japanese as the hero or even the victim. Haruki's experiences as a soldier, much like Nao's experiences with her bullies as school, show that people can be cruel and hateful no matter what continent they're on. And of course, there is also much mention of the 2011 tsunami, and if the Hello Kitty lunchbox is debris from that awful event, then there is a very real chance Nao is no longer alive, even if she didn't decide to end her own life. Reoccurring themes include bullying, suicide, religion (particularly Buddhism), ecology, the written word and what it means to tell your own story, and even ethics.
My Verdict: The book is interesting, well-written, and I liked it, but that is about it. It didn't blow my mind or anything, and I was kind of expecting it to, but that was probably my fault. Parts of it are absolutely enchanting, like Ozeki's descriptions of the remote island Ruth lives on, as well as the people that inhabit it. And other parts of the book are devastating and heartbreaking, such as the ways in which Nao is bullied...we're talking about horrifying videos that her classmates post on YouTube type of bullying. It's awful. But even so, there are other aspects of the book that I just couldn't quite believe. I didn't believe the relationship between Ruth and her husband Oliver, and I didn't believe at all in the existence of Nao's mother. She was around, and she worked a lot while the dad was unemployed, so that somewhat explained her absence, but still. And then there is the whole part dealing with dreams and time travel, and I just didn't buy it. But hey, maybe you will.
Favorite Moment: When Ruth and Oliver find their missing cat, injured, but alive. It actually has very little to do with the whole plot of the novel, but I have a cat and I was glad the fictional cat was okay. Sue me.
Favorite Character: No, I'm not going to pick the cat. Instead I will pick Jiko, Nao's 104 year-old great-grandmother. She's a Buddhist nun who takes care of Nao for a summer. She became a nun after her son died as a soldier in World War II. She is loving, peaceful, and of course, full of wisdom. At one point, Nao asks her how old you have to be before your mind really grows up, and Jiko answers "105." Ha!
Recommended Reading: I must go with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. If I had read any of his other books by now I probably would have gone with something different since I tend to recommend this one a lot. But much like Ozeki's novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle also talks about the war and has elements of dreaming mixed with time travel.