A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Here is the next of my reviews of the Booker Short List. As you will remember I read this before the winner was announced.

It’s not really a surprise that it took me a little longer than planned to read this book. Partly – and it seems sad to mention length again so soon after the last blog – it is because the book is a long one, but that’s not really an excuse for my taking a long time to read it. Perhaps I could play along to the novel’s themes and say that I was trying to give it enough time, my real time matching its own. But that’s just me pretending to be smart and really it is exactly in this book’s conflation of novel, diary, philosophical tract, religious meditation, fact and fiction that left me needing time between readings. I like its multifaceted genre. I like its interest in grappling with what it means to live, and how we might be able to stretch and play with the narratives of our own and others lives. I enjoy the inclusion and importance of dreaming – something non-European modern realism usually avoids because the North American and English writers we seem to venerate are so obsessed with the real that can be witnessed that they are nervous of straying into the real as we really experience it. However, once again, I come away unsure as to whether this is a prize-winning novel.

The narrative is divided between Ruth, a writer with writer’s block (another reason for writing about the self?), who finds the diary of a Japanese girl, Nao, washed up on her beach; and the diary of Nao, who is a very depressed Japanese school girl struggling with a suicidal father and serious bullying at school. Nao’s diary wasn’t meant to be a diary, it was meant to be a book about her grandmother, Jiko, a feminist writer turned nun, and she is really the lynchpin of the novel. Not only do I enjoy reading about Jiko and empathise with her more than with the other characters, but she pulls the two other women’s narratives together, eventually dragging them into each other’s worlds. I think, however, that I would have been happier if this had happened without Ruth, her partner, Oliver, and their friend, Muriel, trying to tease out explanations for this. Suddenly Buddhism meets Quantum Mechanics with totem animals thrown in for good measure. I’m not saying I don’t like thinking about the possibilities of all of these things working in a world we have often lost wonder in, I’m just not sure I want it all spelled out.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this did win the Booker. And in some ways I’d be pleased, but for my tastes, the intellectual questions of the book, about how to author our own lives, are too overt. This is backed up by the pages of appendices, acknowledgements and endnotes. This is a PHD thesis, with notebooks and diary, rolled into a novel. I know, of course, in a way every book requires the time and focus of a Phd, but did we need the extraneous material around the text? I’m just not sure, in the end, that I enjoyed the construction of the book, that I was keen to move from Nao’s narrative to Ruth’s, especially as Ruth’s moved from being a close third person to a distant third person narrative in a way that I occasionally found distracting. Perhaps I’m very old-fashioned and want the story to tell me everything I need to know to begin to ask questions for myself; I’m bored by post-modern cogs. No, maybe not bored, just unmoved.

I did cry towards the end (I won’t tell you why just in case you haven’t read it), and I have come away wondering lots of things, but what’s wrong with a bit of Haruki Murakami? If you want to question how we author our lives from a Japanese perspective, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle might be another place to start. Or you could say that this is a more self-consciously literary Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M Pirsig, but I did read that years ago. Either way, reading that the author was also a Zen Buddhist priest left me feeling uncomfortable about the intentions of the text. And yes, please do note, that I can’t help referring to this book as text rather than novel. It is the book’s pedantically self-conscious and self-referential nature that most urks me and not because I dislike self-consciousness and self-referential work per se but because I want all of that to blend with the story in a way that says something more to me than the story alone and I’m not sure that A Tale for the Time Being pulls that off.

Next up, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.