A Tale for the Time Being

Ruth Ozeki

I hadn’t thought about Ruth Ozeki much in the many years since I read My Year of Meats. A Tale for the Time Being has some comparable elements, including multiple points of view and semi-parallel story lines as well as similarities to Ozeki’s life and identity. Though this one takes it a bit further with a main character named Ruth who lives with her husband Oliver on an island in British Columbia, apparently similar to the one Ozeki lives in when she’s not in New York City.

Ruth is struggling to work on a memoir about her mother’s long illness and death when she discovers a lunchbox washed up on the shore containing several mysterious things, including a diary from roughly ten years ago written by a teenage girl Nao who then lived in Tokyo. Ruth wonders if its arrival on the island was a result of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, so as she slowly reads it, she begins researching key details to try to find the writer and her family in real life. She becomes so invested in the diary, it distracts her from her frustration with her own work and quiet island life where winter storms can leave them without power for days. Ultimately there’s a bit of magic in which she becomes more a part of the story than she expected.

The novel is fairly brainy, involving footnotes and appendices (one briefly summarizes quantum theory); it manages to encompass an impressive variety of topics including bullying and suicide (related to this: Larissa MacFarquhar’s “Last Call” in this week’s New Yorker, behind the paywall) and war traumas and ecological concerns and Zen Buddhism and philosophy as well as general ideas about time and “now” (cleverly a homophone of the name Nao). It’s the sort of book that seems very big at the beginning yet breezes by far too fast.