#14 “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki

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i. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
ii. Dracula – Bram Stoker
1.  Lolita– Vladimir Nabokov
2. Holiday in Cambodia – Laura Jean McKay
3. Only Human – Gareth Roberts
4. Beautiful Chaos – Gary Russell
5. The Silent Stars – Dan Abnett
6. American Gods – Neil Gaiman
7. Every Breath – Ellie Marney
8. Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
9. Delirium – Lauren Oliver
10. Pandemonium – Lauren Oliver
11. Requiem – Lauren Oliver
12. Venom– Fiona Paul
13. Belladonna – Fiona Paul
14. A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

I did it! I finally did it! All 16 new books are now read (I sneakily added two books to the list, just in case that tidbit escaped your attention). I know which ones I’ll be re-reading and which ones that will never see the light of day again. Just in case you’re interested, the ones I’m giving away or torching with a flamethrower? The Delirium trilogy. The rest made the cut. Goddamn you, Lauren Oliver. Still can’t believe she managed to get another two books added to her contract, but I’m not getting into this again. Instead, let’s talk numbers. It took me 93 days to get through those 16 books. That is 13.3 weeks. So, essentially, I was reading 1.2 books per week. How’s that for player stats? That’s not even including the 3 Magnus Bane Chronicles that were released during those 93 days. I am pretty damn pleased with myself. Especially because I managed to branch out and read books not of my usual genre. Go me!

Anyway, I think that’s enough self-congratulating. It’s not like it was such a hard slog. I love to read. I love to write. And challenging myself to write about the books I was reading was just a way to combine my two passions. And thank you guys for following me! Especially since I know I’m a bit of a rambler. But I hate reading reviews. I was just trying to give my honest impressions of these books in the hopes that you can share my reading experiences. And maybe get into some awesome literary discussions along the way. Which you guys so graciously have given me, so thanks!

As for today’s “impression”… A Tale for the Time Being has to be one of the most ambitious novels I have ever read. Up there with Cloud Atlas, even. For starters, the title isn’t even what you think it means. You know how someone asks you a question, say, “So, what do you think of the area?” when you first move to a new place, and you tilt your head to the side, imagine that house and say “Well, the schools are great, and there’s plenty of space for the kids to run around. Plus, we’re not too far from the city. It’ll do for the time being.”? Yeah, that’s not what the title means. In the words of our narrator, Naoko Yasutani:

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.

So this book is for everyone. I love it when titles surprise you. But there are so many surprising things about this novel. We start with Naoko (or Nao, as she is called throughout the book) and then we realise, in the very next chapter, that her voice is actually a diary that our other narrator has found on the beach of her island home. And this narrator? Her name is Ruth. This was one of the greatest things about this novel. We were reading Ruth’s reactions to Nao’s story and the difficulties Ruth was having writing her next novel, and how these two things intertwined. It was what made me think that this book was non-fiction. That I was reading a true account of two people’s lives. [SPOILER] Although, at the very end you find out that the story is actually fiction with bits and pieces of reality thrown in to taste. But as the story unfolds and you delve deeper in Nao’s troubled life, it starts to get gritty and dark and terrible. This girl is alone in the world with a mother that has to work her arse off and so is never around, a suicidal father, and the most horrifying ijime (bullying, in English) that I have ever head of. She gets pinched, slapped, burnt with cigarettes, ignored to the point where these kids pretend she’s dead and hold a funeral for her, her underwear is taken from her and auctioned off on one of those perverted websites for anyone who gets off on young girls’ underwear, and worst off all, she is almost raped amid a circle of her class”mates” who are filming the whole thing on their keitai (mobile phones). So with all of this on her shoulders, is it any wonder that Nao decides that suicide sounds like an OK option? This novel goes dark in the worst way. Nao even has a stint as a prostitute for a while, but she only ever “serves” two customers. That poor girl. I am so glad that she turned out to be fictional, but this situation could very really be true for someone. Which is the most depressing thing.

Books that make you think are the best kind of literature. A Tale for the Time Being is definitely one of these. The major theme of this novel is time, in all senses of the word: running out of time, for Nao and her kamikaze great-uncle Haruki #1; how much time is left, in regards to Nao’s father; the fleetingness of time, in the teachings of old Jiko (Nao’s great-grandmother, a Zen nun); and the perception of time, as Ruth tries to limit her reading of Nao’s diary to the amount of time it would have taken Nao to write each entry. Branching from that is the idea of death and the afterlife. This was the part of the book that made me stop and think. According to Zen teachings, there are 65 moments in the snap of your fingers. Go ahead, snap your fingers, I’ll wait.

That was 65 moments of your life gone. And in each of those 65 moments, according to Zen, is the opportunity to change your life. That is both amazing and intimidating all at the same time. If there are 65 moments in a finger snap, how many are there in a heartbeat? These are the questions I ask myself. Because, and I’m going to go a little dark here, I think about these things. When I was a little girl, I have this incredibly vivid memory of running into the lounge room, tears streaming down my face, and crying to Mum “I don’t want to die”. Mum had absolutely no idea how to comfort me. Because, as the quote goes: “the only two certainties in life are death and taxes”. I got over it, of course, managing to forget for years and years. But this novel brought that fear back. One day we’re all going to close our eyes and they won’t open again. And that scares the shit out of me. But I”ll stop there before I freak everyone out.

On a lighter note, I loved the way this book was formatted. Throughout Nao’s story we get footnotes that explain all of the strange Japanese phrases that she uses, but a few pages in we realise that this is Ruth decoding the diary, so that she can have a deeper appreciation for the words in front of her. We also get a sense of the urgency Ruth feels to help Nao, even though we find out the diary is almost a decade old and Nao would either have survived her horrible adolescence or she wouldn’t. We feel what Ruth feels as well as what Nao makes us feel with her life story. I applaud Ozeki whole-heartedly for that stroke of genius. And the whole time we are following Ruth’s journey as she tries to verify that Nao and her family are real. There are so many twists and turns in this novel that I was left with my head spinning. Which just made the deviations from realist fiction even more surreal. Ghosts and dream sequences and a crow’s point of view. All of this tied in with the beautiful chaos of this novel just makes for an experience. Because this novel is definitely experienced, not just read.
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Then you get these post-modern flourishes like a blank page, different fonts and font sizes, and an illustrated word just to make things even more amazing. Add in the symbiotic story-telling (one story couldn’t live without the other), the letters, the dreams, and the Zen teachings, and how can other writers even hope to compete? I mean, I know we’re not supposed to compare ourselves to other writers because it hinders the creative process or whatever, but people like Ozeki (and Gaiman, of course) just are, well, gods of literature. Even the appendices in this novel are fantastic. They are written to be part of the story, with the same narrative voice as Ruth’s character. I now totally understand Schrödinger’s Cat. Thank you, Ruth Ozeki.

I have absolutely nothing but admiration and awe for this novel.

★★★★★

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About Bec Graham

Bec Graham, 24, was born on the wrong continent. Everything from her burns-like-paper skin tone to her inability to cope with the slightest hint of a hot day suggests she should have been born under the gloomy skies and mild sun of the UK. She hopes writing will get her to her rightful home one day. Failing that, she scans the skies for a spinning blue police box, hoping to catch a lift back to the motherland.
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