While walking along the shore of an island off Canada’s western coast, a writer’s-blocked author named Ruth finds a plastic bag. Thinking it’s garbage, she picks it up to throw it away, only to realize the bag contains a plastic Hello Kitty lunchbox. And inside that lunchbox is stack of letters handwritten in Japanese and a diary. Wondering whether the diary is one of the first pieces of debris to reach North America from Japan’s 2011 tsunami, Ruth begins reading.
The diary is written by Nao Yasutani, a 16-year-old Japanese girl who has decided to end her life — but first, she must tell the fascinating life story of her 104-year-old great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun named Jiko. Inevitably, the diary is mostly about herself, as she is compelled to tell her own story and the story of how she came to learn about Jiko’s life. With incredible self-awareness, Nao describes her suicidal father, the bullying she faces at school, the empty sexual experiences she undergoes, and her growing relationship with Jiko.
“Do not think that time simply flies away. Do not understand “flying” as the only function of time. If time simply flew away, a separation would exist between you and time. So if you understand time as only passing, then you do not understand the time being. To grasp this truly, every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time, and at the same time they exist as individual moments of time. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.”
A Tale for the Time Being alternates between Nao’s diary entries and Ruth’s perspective as she obsessively reads the journal. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and yet I’ve put off reviewing it for months because I’m just not quite what to say about it. I don’t know how to form a cohesive review of this book. It’s a book that I loved so much that all I can really say is that it’s amazing. However, the tone of this book has stuck with me, as have the feelings of intense fascination while I read it.
This is the kind of book that pulls you in and doesn’t let go. Nao is one of the most compelling narrators I’ve ever read, and she writes with a unique voice that I can still hear months after putting this book down. A Tale for the Time Being has some great philosophical elements, and I loved the way it intricately weaves together past and present, fact and fiction, with a healthy dose of quantum physics. I love a book that can make my brain explode (like Cloud Atlas, The Power of Myth, and David Foster Wallace’s essays), and this novel does that in all the best ways.
I know I’m late to the party with this book, but I absolutely loved it, and I would encourage anyone else who hasn’t read it yet to READ IT. READ IT RIGHT NOW.