I’m just going to come out and say it: A Tale for the Time Being is a truly beautiful novel. Another gem leant to me by my friend Lexi (who has also thrust We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, The White Tiger and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared upon me this year), her taste remains impeccable.
Ruth Ozeki’s story begins when Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the coast of the United States’ Pacific Northwest and inside amongst other trinkets, the diary of the Japanese teenager Nao inside. The diary tells us of Nao’s difficult school years as she struggles to adjust to life in Japan after living happily in California before the dot-com bubble bursts and her father loses his job. She is relentlessly bullied at school, sees her parents become more and more disconnected from her and the world around them, but decides that before she will end her life, she will first document the life of her extraordinary 104-year-old great-grandmother Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun. As Ruth makes her way through the materials included in the lunchbox, she becomes more and more entwined with Nao’s life and fears, which help her connect with the island neighbours she has resisted.
The breadth of this novel is extraordinary. The number of themes is extensive but never overwhelming. Ozeki manages to thread these together without overburdening the reader, but also with an authenticity: the characters do not just experience limited pressures in their certain periods of their lives, just as we do not as readers. A Tale for the Time Being acknowledges that we are all only here for a short amount of time - we experience life as “time beings”. Just as Nao cannot be expected to deal with her parent’s own mental health as hers undergoes its own extraordinary pressure, she may at times focus on love and family, but at other times must focus on her own survival. This also brings the novel an unpredictability that kept me turning page after page, never knowing what Nao will face or Ruth will grapple with next.
Both characters wrestle a great deal with their sense of place, where they see their true home, both having transplanted themselves (or having been transplanted in Nao’s case) from what they consider to be home to in many ways a new, more difficult one. As such they struggle to know how to act, how to communicate with others and what to make of themselves in these new surroundings. This means that A Tale for the Time Being is a coming-of-age novel for Nao but also of sorts for the adult Ruth. Nao expresses this in her typically naive but observant manner in an exchange with her great-grandmother Jiko:
Do you have to live to a hundred to really grow up? I should ask her this.
<Hey, Jiko, how old do you have to be before you’re really grown up? Not just your body, but your mind?>
That’s what I just texted to her. I’ll let you know what she says when she gets back to me.
And a few pages later, Jiko replies:
That’s what she just texted me. That’s how old she says you have to be before your mind really grows up, but since she’s a hundred and four, I’m pretty sure she’s joking.
The ideas around how we should be as human beings are greatly influenced by Ozeki’s own practice as a Buddhist, and this is carried through the novel by Jiko. Introducing Nao to the practice of Zazen - a form of meditation - allows Nao to find a place for her own, amongst the noise of her distracted parents, her violent school and the search for her own identity as a Japanese-American not sure of where she belongs:
Maybe this isn’t a big deal for you, because you’ve always had a home, but for me, who never had a home except for Sunnyvale, which I lost, it’s a very big deal. Zazen is better than a home. Zazen is a home that you can’t ever lose, and I keep doing it because I like that feeling, and I trust old Jiko, and it wouldn’t hurt for me to try to see the world a little more optimistically like she does.
The childlike voice of Nao both connects Ruth to her story but also echoes her own fears. Ozeki’s language is a gorgeous balance of naivety and knowledge - much like the character of Nao. There are short descriptions of the Japanese language throughout, which allow Ozeki to have her characters speak in their naturally multi-lingual state. Nao speaks English first, having spent her formative years in Sunnyvale, California while her father worked in Silicon Valley, and her resulting difficulty in Japanese and perceived ‘otherness’ is the cause of much bullying at school. But this also puts her in a unique position to bridge cultures for those around her and at time beautifully and lyrically to the reader:
The way you write ronin is [Japanese characters] with the character for wave and the character for person, which is pretty much how I feel, like a little wave person, floating around on the stormy sea of life.
But this voice also carries gut-wrenching power at times, such as in the relationship between Nao and Jiko:
Sometimes when she told stories about the past her eyes would get teary from all the memories she had, but they weren’t tears. She wasn’t crying. They were just the memories, leaking out.
Reading this phrase brought tears to my eyes, as I thought of my own grandmother, who suffered from aphasia at the end of her life. You could see in my grandma’s eyes the thoughts and memories that she wanted to express, but could no longer communicate. Her pain and frustration were reminders of how fickle life can be, how quickly things can change.
Ozeki walks a fine line throughout A Tale for the Time Being as to who’s story belongs to whom. What is real and what is imagined? What is a dream and what is a memory? When Ruth puts herself in to Nao’s story, seeking meaning in her own life, the truth becomes blurred. It’s another example of discovering your own stories through others that was done so well in HHhH (that I posted about here). Nao puts herself in to the story of her family, finding meaning in the myths around her great-uncle, Haruki, a kamikaze pilot during the war who is coerced by the Japanese army into writing propaganda messages into letters home to family. But Haruki finds a way to remain subversive and in doing so is able to record some beautiful, break taking thoughts around grief, loss and death:
I’m afraid my day is approaching and my next “official” letter to you may be the last one you receive from me. But no matter what nonsense I write in it, please know that those are not my last words. There are other words and other worlds, dear Mother. You have taught me that.
In the end, these questions remain. But they do so in a way that forces you to stop and think about your own life, rather than distractions that remain unresolved. Ozeki wants us to connect with the people and environment that surround us, to discover our own stories and to understand those of the people around us. She wants us to recognise that what makes people interesting is what’s hidden below the surface, the memories and thoughts that we record only for ourselves, or for those we trust. In Nao’s case, it is in the life and wisdom of Jiko; and for Ruth it is an obsession with the truth in Nao’s story that forces her to question herself. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, it matters that we open ourselves up to these stories and ideas from others. Because we are all only here for the ‘time being’, eventually we will run out of time to pass these stories on.
Finishing A Tale for the Time Being on a grey Sunday afternoon, I needed to find some time to process the novel, feeling almost a sense of grief to lose the companionship of these characters. There is something lovely about taking a bit of time to prepare your life, and in the case of this particular Sunday afternoon, the repetition of forming these pumpkin cakes felt like a meditative act. In this post for her Spaghetti Squash Baby Cakes, Sarah from My New Roots (who’s recipes I’ve posted here before - most recently her Spring Abundance Bowl with The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis and Gold Rush Soup with Franny and Zooey) talks about finding a moment to herself as new mother to look after herself. By making a big batch of these little pumpkin cakes she is able to nourish herself and therefore her child. I am continuing to pull these savoury treats from the freezer as I work long hours, recover from travelling, or just take the time to look after myself. I used butternut squash in place of spaghetti squash and replaced the sage, which was unavailable from my local market, with thyme, which worked well here. In fact I think any woody herb would do - rosemary would be lovely too - anything that brings warmth and a hint of spice to the pumpkin mix. These cakes are also incredibly versatile in what they can be served with: I’ve had them alongside greens with toasted seeds and a side of a yoghurt sauce on cooler days, or here with a seasonal spring salad of fennel and blood orange, with walnuts and capers on brighter, sunnier days. Pictured here as an office lunch, sitting in the sun and taking a moment to pause, reflect and find my own place within the day.
I have just arrived back in Melbourne after a glorious ten days away. I’ll be writing more about my time in Brisbane and Sydney over the next few posts, but I did quickly want to write about my time in Newcastle for the National Young Writers’ Festival which rounded out the end of my trip. I chaired a panel for the first time, I made sandwiches in front of an audience while talking about book-plate, I went to some really fantastic events, met some truly wonderful people, danced the night away and spent a lot of time in the sunshine with friends. It was incredible. Thank you so much to Alex, Jess and Lex for inviting me to come along and join the party. Here’s a recent piece in The Guardian about how during a time of global insecurity, writers’ festivals are a place to connect, be invigorated and inspired.