My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A struggling novelist named Ruth finds a watertight package containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed ashore on an island off the coast of British Columbia. Ruth’s initial assumption is that it’s debris from the March 11, 2011 tsunami that scoured a large swath of coastal eastern Japan out to sea. However, her husband, Oliver, who has more expertise in these matters, tells her that it’s unlikely that the box could cross the Pacific so quickly and that it would be jettisoned out of the currents that consolidate plastic rubbish into large debris fields like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. When the lunch box’s contents turn out to include a teenage girl’s journal and a number of letters, it seems as though the mystery might be solvable.
The journal is written by a Japanese girl in turmoil named Nao. Nao grew up in American, her father working for a Silicon Valley computer firm until he lost his job. A major factor in Nao’s depression is that she has to return to her ethnic homeland of Japan as a stranger. Her formative years were spent in America, and she is out-of-place in Japan and—as a result—she falls victim to vicious bullying. Furthermore, her father is unable to find a job in Japan and becomes suicidal. The household has to tighten its proverbial belt because Nao’s father, Haruki #2, isn’t working and Nao’s mother has limited earning potential. (FYI: the “#2” refers to the fact that Nao’s father had an uncle for whom he was named who’d been a scholar forced to serve in a kami kaze squad during the war.)
Nao also becomes suicidal, but she is firm in her conviction that she will not fail like her father has done on two occasions. There’s one thing that she must do first and that’s to pen the story of her great-grandmother Jiko. Jiko is a centenarian Buddhist nun and the family matriarch on Nao’s father’s side of the family. Nao stays a summer with Jiko, and the old nun in all her wisdom becomes an anchor in the girl’s tumultuous life. With a level of narcissism appropriate to a teenager, Nao ends up telling us a story that’s more autobiographical than an account of Old Jiko.
A Tale for the Time Being interweaves two storylines. One line is Nao’s journal entries and letters from the lunchbox. The other line is Ruth’s journey as she reads the journal and becomes obsessed with discovering more about Nao and her family members. Eventually, Ruth’s investigation turns up information about Haruki #1 and Haruki #2 that Nao apparently didn’t know, and that both Ruth and the reader hope the girl will learn. Nao comes to idolize Haruki #1 in part because he was committed to his fate as a kami kaze. It’s not that she believed in the kami kaze objective (she identifies more as American than Japanese), but she sees Haruki #1’s commitment in contrast to her father’s behavior. Nao’s myth about her great-uncle turns him into a counterpoint to the father that she loves but thinks a pathetic loser. In a way, this novel is a cautionary tale about drawing conclusions about the virtues and vices of others without knowing their whole story.
Ozeki does a great job of creating characters multi-dimensional enough for us to become intrigued by. Just as Ozeki has her same-named secondary protagonist, Ruth, sitting on the edge of the seat wanting to find out what happened to Nao and her family, we—too–are pulled into that mystery. The challenging approach of weaving Ruth’s story into the journal’s contents works well.
Ozeki hints that there may be something supernatural about the world in which her characters inhabit. There’s a member of a species of crow that shouldn’t be on the American side of the Pacific who shows up at about the same time as the lunch box. Also, we can’t tell whether some of Nao’s stories are the wishful delusions of a tormented girl or whether they reflect some kind of subtle magic. It’s a similar approach to that of other literary fiction authors such as Haruki Murakami.
I’d recommend this novel. It’s gripping and readable.