"A Tale for the Time Being" by Ruth Ozeki

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A Tale for the Time Being will rivet you to the page. You will share in the lives - trials and triumphs, and cares and grievances, of two Japanese women. One - a teenage girl - has written a diary full of frightful bullying and soul searching; the other is a novelist afraid she is losing her memory, or worse, going mad. As these two heroines’ stories unfold in alternating streams, our clever author mixes in meditations on Zen Buddhism, Japanese imperial wartime excesses, the idea that ordinary people have superpowers, and the possibility we live in multiple universes at once. It’s a rich, heady mix, told in honest, understandable human emotion; Ms. Ozeki’s ineffable results match her lofty ambitions in this beautiful, multifarious novel. It was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize.

Naoko, or Nao, a young Japanese girl about to turn 16, starts keeping a diary. Somehow, about ten years later, a backpack containing it and some letters washes up on the shore of an island in British Columbia. Its discoverer, a novelist named Ruth, picks it up, starts to read it, and quickly feels a bond with this girl and her father, both of whom are beaten down by life. We read Nao’s heartbreaking story alongside Ruth, and drama unfolds in each strand. Nao struggles with cruel beatings and ostracization, her imminent failure in her classes, and beloved dad’s attempted suicides. Ruth relates very closely with Nao, and becomes concerned about her and her dad’s welfare, even though the diary was written ten years before.

These narratives sparkle with philosophical learning and outré possibility. Nao’s voice is pitch-perfect in her portion of the proceedings. But to her also belong the deepest thoughts on philosophical conundrums. She goes on a retreat to visit her great aunt Jiko, 104 year-old Buddhist nun, and finally begins to learn about life, the universe, selflessness, and mysticism. She considers these lessons in a child’s honest voice -  and this is one of Ms. Ozeki’s foremost achievements here: she places into this yearning, confused girl’s unsophisticated language the most challenging and most timeless human questions. What is life and death? How is a life to be lived? How can we most effectively serve others? Why is there so much cruelty in the world?

These considerations take us into the realms also of modern quantum physics; the author provides an appendix (one of several on various subjects) with a detailed explanation of Schrödinger’s cat, for example. And these speculations serve her plot - there’s nothing gratuitous about them. (There is also, as though anything more were needed, a reference to a brief flowering of literature and a liberalization of women’s rights in pre-imperial Japan; this book might also serve as an example of the I-book genre published at that time.)

All the layers, all the twists, all the philosophy, all the superpowers,the fascinating structure - these mix together into a work of genius. Prepare to open yourself to a new experience and take this piece up.

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