In A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki uses multiple narratives to create a layered story that crosses time, oceans, and possibly even worlds.
Sixteen-year-old Nao is miserable. Born in Japan but raised in California, she is now back in Tokyo, where she feels like a foreigner. Her classmates bully her relentlessly, her American friends are distant and uninterested, and her father is in a state of severe depression. Nao decides that her life is not worth living, but before she takes any action, she first wants to write a tribute to her beloved great-grandmother. However, this soon becomes a diary of Nao’s own troubles, many of which are much darker than any teenager should have to face.
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, author Ruth discovers a tattered freezer bag among the ocean debris washed up on the shore of a remote Canadian island. She carries it home with the intention of throwing it in the garbage. When her husband insists on opening the bag, she finds a well-preserved lunchbox containing, among other things, Nao’s diary. Ruth pages through the diary, expecting to be bored by run-of-the-mill teen angst. But as she begins to read, she is soon intrigued by Nao’s story, and begins to draw parallels between Nao’s terrible loneliness and her own sense of isolation.
As Nao’s diary entries become more melancholy, Ruth begins to grow concerned about the girl. What happened to her? Is she still alive? Could her family have been affected by the recent tsunami? While attempting to find some sort of information confirming Nao’s existence, Ruth discovers that she is no longer sure what is real and what is imaginary. She initially scoffs at her husband when he suggests the possibility of quantum mechanics and parallel universes, but later begins to wonder if something strange is at play after all.
I have to admit something: While I had heard good things about this book, the main reason I picked it up was the cover. The contrasting patterned stripes are beautiful and attention-grabbing, and unlike anything else I saw on the shelves. The same could be said for the novel itself. The separate storylines are woven together in such a way that you can almost imagine Nao’s diary as a series of letters written directly to Ruth. By using the voices of two very different people, the author has created an absorbing story that keeps from becoming overly complicated despite occurring in multiple time periods.
A Tale for the Time Being was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the 2013 LA Times Book Prize for Fiction. It is also available in ebook and eaudiobook formats through the OCPL OverDrive website. And if you’re in the mood for more time-bending tales, check out Life After Life, The Bone Clocks, and How to be both.