Designers are taught that to bring two opposing colours closer together you need to add some of each colour into the other; which is just what Ruth Ozeki does in her fascinating, Booker short-listed novel A Tale for the Time Being. A ‘novelist’ with an American father and Japanese mother finds a diary and notebook washed up on a lonely island in British Columbia and written by a Japanese girl who spent her early years living in California. So the writer, called ‘Ruth’, can understand many of the Japanese aspects of the girl’s account of her troubled life and, fortunately for us, the girl, Naoko, writes in English. A bond is established; not just between writer and diarist but between them both and the reader.
Another thought occurs to me: in sociological experiments, it is often impossible to exclude the effects of the observer’s reactions and emotions which, in turn, will affect the outcome of the experiment. So it is with this book, where the slowly building tension in Naoko’s story provokes alarm, anxiety, frustration and even depression in ‘Ruth’ and, as you will surely confirm, in the reader too. Academic theorists will recognise the symptoms of ‘reader response theory’ and this book would make an almost ideal subject for any 21st Century contemporary fiction course.
Naoko has been uprooted from her comfortable Californian childhood and, as a vulnerable teenager, returned to Japan with her now-unemployed father. Her knowledge of her mother tongue is sketchy and her school-fellows bully her mercilessly. Finding a blank notebook bound into the hollowed-out cover of À la recherché du temps perdu she buys it for her personal diary and, for the time being, wonders about time, about being and, just as often, about not being. Since her father is suicidal and her mother out working all day, she is very fortunate in have a good relationship with her centenarian great-grandmother Jiko who is a Zen Buddhist nun with a timeless philosophy. She pours out her heart into the diary and, somehow, unexplained, some little time after the tsunami that wrecked Fukushima power station and much else besides, this long diary, written over a period of three or more years, this carefully wrapped and packed notebook washes up in a barnacle encrusted polythene bag that ‘Ruth’ notices glinting in the low sun on her island shore.
Ruth Ozeki, the novelist (with an American father and a Japanese mother who now divides her time between New York and British Columbia) who wrote this book, is married to Oliver and this is her third novel. The central character in her book just happens to be a novelist called ‘Ruth’ who is married to an ecologist called ‘Oliver’. So we really have to keep in mind Waugh’s epitaph to Brideshead Regained: “I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they”: this is a work of fiction. (And if you read Philip Roth you are already familiar with such mind games.) As Naoko finds out more about her great-uncle who was one of the last kamikaze airmen and discovers his secret diary (written in French to complicate matters), she bundles these in with her notebook. ‘Ruth’ and the reader read the grim truth about the sadistic training and exploitation of the young men the failing Japanese military abused in this way. However, if the reader thinks that’s the most harrowing part of the story, be warned, the emotional turmoil moves up several gears as Naoko’s world collapses and, one can argue, in consequence, so is ‘Ruth’s’ put at great risk.
Although ‘Ruth’ searches and researches trying to trace the teenage diarist, she only manages to circle in closer and closer but they never meet. While the diarist tries to imagine the person who may eventually read her writings, the ‘author’ tries to picture the diarist as she must be now, if she is still alive; a woman in her twenties living somewhere, maybe Tokyo, maybe Paris.
And finally, the most important point: the quality of the writing and the pacing of the unfolding story are superb and it is easy to see how the book made the Man Booker prize short list this year. I will give this novel a rating of 8 out of ten and heartily recommend it to book reading groups.