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Review: A Tale for the Time Being

It’s taken me a few days since I finished reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being to get round to doing the review.

This is because it’s easy to admire, but rather difficult to like.  Even while reading it, I found myself putting it down to do something else, and then not being drawn to picking it up again.

As James said, “like every other Booker nominee…[it] doesn’t look very cheerful.”  Yes, that’s right, this is about as cheerful as being run over by a train.

The book starts off deceptively perkily, with the bright narrative voice of 16 year old Nao’s, as written in her diary.  Nao is a Japanese girl who has lived most of her life in Silicon Valley, but who is then transported to another life when the dot com bubble bursts, her dad loses his job, and the family have to return penniless to Japan.

The narrative quickly descends into some truly horrific bullying at school, which Nao’s parents are unable to comprehend, never mind protect their daughter from.  Father is suicidal, leaving Mother to shoulder the burden of providing for the family’s needs.  The only member of the family who offers any kind of hope is Nao’s Great-Grandma Jiko.

Nao’s narrative weaves in with that of Japanese-American author Ruth, who discovers the diary washed up on the Canadian shore ten years later.   We see Ruth and her husband Oliver exploring questions on her life, on life itself, and on the effect that reading the diary has on her.

In the second part of the novel, Nao gains strength and inspiration from her relationship with her great-grandmother, and from the sad story of her uncle Harikai, Jiko’s son, who died in the Second World War.  Ruth and Oliver continues to ponder, and don’t do much else apart from this.

The third part of the novel becomes increasingly experimental.

There are two reasons I’d describe it as an experimental novel.  The first is that this novel pushes throughout at the limits of what a reader can be expected to bear on behalf of a set of characters.

The question this novel raises is: How do you behave when you are attacked and you cannot run away?  How do you react when life deals you terrible, undeserved blows?  And a lot of what happens to these characters is truly terrible, and they are truly helpless in their dilemmas.  This goes against the convention of how novelists are advised to manage the emotions of their readers.  Too much suffering can be a turn off, and lead to a number of reactions, such as: “this is not realistic”, “this character is defined only by suffering – I am not interested any more”, “this is ridiculous.”  The novel pushes at those points, maybe sometimes too far, as I found myself switching off through some passages, although I do have to say though, that many of the descriptions of undeserved suffering make this novel memorable and made me think back to it at various points for days afterwards.

The other reason that I would describe this novel as experimental is that in the third past, it starts to play with time, alternative realities and with the role of the narrator and author.   I was much less taken with the characters of Ruth and Oliver, as I did not feel I really connected with their motives, pasts or desires.  But I wonder if this was intentional and that their intended role is to exist as kind of scientific observer?

In this article, http://arts.nationalpost.com/2013/10/15/ruth-ozeki-the-ocean-between-us/ Ruth Ozeki describes her aim of providing “emotional closure” as well as keeping “lively and relevant questions alive”.  I did not feel much emotional closure.  However, I do admire Ozeki’s aim to keep questions alive, and I am glad that a literary landscape exists where such questions can be explored, and in which the explorers of such questions are rewarded with recognition and, it’s clear from the Amazon reviews, admiration.

I just found it difficult to like, and it was an uncomfortable read.  Which poses a question to me: primarily, I want a book to amuse me, to appeal to my senses, and to my desire for excitement and suspense.   How do I feel when a book gives me only a fraction of these things and gives me instead things to think about and things that haunt me?

I wonder if perhaps Ozeki’s Zen Buddhism had an influence on how this book turned out.  In my Westernised readings of things, I feel that I am looking for a narrative to produce a feeling of ultimate triumph, even if that triumph is just an internal feeling of being uplifted.  Whereas this book was very much to do with coming to terms with terrible things where there is not going to be a feeling of uplift or triumph.

I think my answer is that I don’t mind being taken out of my comfort zone, but I only want this to form a fraction of my reading.  And that I will be  looking for a different kind of book next!

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11 Comments

  1. Why are all the Booker prize nominees and winners so depressing? It’s almost as though that is a requirement of the prize! I find depressing books hard going.

    • The last two Booker nominees I can think of that weren’t utter gloom fests were The Restraint Of Beasts and Under The Frog, both of which made me laugh. Then again, the first of those is a tale of despair, sausages and agricultural fencing, and the latter is set during the Prague uprising, so perhaps that shows how downbeat Bookers are in general.

    • It was inexplicable, wasn’t it! Although as the rest of the book got more and more detached from reality, that became the least of the worries. I guess if she had introduced the idea of the way the diary really ends earlier on, it would have been a little bit difficult for the reader to understand/come to terms with.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. I love this review, Denise. You really got at the core of what any reader would want to know about a book before deciding whether or not to plunge in.

    I love books that make me think and that haunt me, but I agree that there needs to be *some* redeeming quality or some feeling of hope. I read another book this summer that dealt with bullying – The Crossing by Andrew Xia Fukuda – and it sounds similar, very bleak with absolutely nothing positive. Well, I’m still very curious about A Tale for the Time Being and I’ve pre-ordered the paperback copy. I’ll look forward to reading it, keeping in mind your thoughts here.

    • I, too, appreciate the in-depth and honest review. There’s no way I would read a book like this. It’s just not good for me to dwell on the questions that depress me, especially when the story ends without any redemption or hope. I see enough despair in the real world–I’m all too sensitive to the realities of poverty & injustice, and I don’t need to be reminded. Therefore when I read, it’s for inspiration and encouragement.

      But I do think books like this serve a good purpose, in informing the minds of people who have no idea of what happens “out there” away from their cozy and protected comfort zones–hopefully spurring understanding and compassion for those who cannot help themselves because they truly are helpless to combat their situations.

      • I think there is very much a redeeming quality, but it is different from the type that we are used to, and one that I didn’t really understand, not deep inside me.

        I was talking to someone about how, even if we are not religious, our ideas of life and culture are shaped by the traditions of religion. So as a culture, we value forgiveness and tolerance. However, we also expect a ultimate triumph, we also want to end up ultimately “on top” in some way, similar to the Christian ideals of being rewarded in Heaven while our enemies are not (highly simplified idea, but I think that is what we regard as a “just” outcome, whichever side of an argument we are on.

        I think it was challenging for me to have those parameters questioned and to be given a more open ending rather than a happy ending. The book didn’t end sadly, but there wasn’t the usual idea of triumph through your own actions and realisations.

        It will be interesting to see what you think, Cecilia. And Tracy, yes, you were right, it was a total eye opener.

  3. Thank you so much for your honest review, Denise. I’d heard a little about this book, but after reading this review, I know this isn’t something I would enjoy for many of the same reasons expressed by Tracy. I can turn on the news and be close to tears after a story or two. When I read, I like to be inspired and feel good at the ending.

    • It’s interesting, I’ve just watched Mary and Max and although I was crying, and it was sad, they were good tears. I think in our culture, we need to see that there is an ultimate point to suffering and that we learn something from it.

  4. Ah. I’d thought I might read this one soon, but I am really NOT in the mood for a depressing book in November, the most depressing month of the year. I need something with jokes, definitely. Thank you for the warning – forewarned is forearmed!

    • Yes, there is some harrowing stuff in this book. It contains stuff on the treatment of Japanese prisoners of war and there is really no redeeming spin you can put on that at all.

      Watch Mary and Max instead! That is very funny.

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