A Tale for the Time Being

Ruth Ozeki

Penguin Books

Actually, I stopped doing that [blogging] a while ago. It made me sad when I caught myself pretending that everybody out there in cyberspace cared about what I thought, when really nobody gives a shit. And when I multiplied that sad feeling by all the millions of people in their lonely little rooms, furiously writing and posting to their lonely little pages that nobody has time to read because they’re all so busy writing and posting, it kind of broke my heart.

                   from  A Tale for the Time Being


Reaching through time to touch and be touched

Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being.

So begins the diary of 16-year old Naoko Yasutani, and a rather extraordinary story by novelist Ruth Ozeki (My Year of Meats, All Over Creation.)

Nao’s diary, wrapped in plastic inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox, is among the detritus that is carried across the Pacific following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It washes ashore in British Columbia where it is found and read by…a novelist named Ruth.

Lonely and bullied by her classmates, Nao (pronounced “Now”) immerses herself in her diary, telling how she plans to “drop out of time,” by committing suicide.

Out of her intense loneliness, she writes to the imagined future reader who will eventually find her diary (How cool is that? It feels like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you’ve found it, you’re reaching back to touch me!). She wonders what the person is like who will someday be reading her words (Are you a male or a female or somewhere in between?) as she tells him/her/it about life as a Japanese teenager living in the twenty-first century.

At times she fears that her diary may never be found, and that she is talking to no one: …what if you’re not reading this at all? What if you never even found this book, because somebody chucked it in the trash or recycled it before it got to you? Then…I’m just sitting here wasting time talking to the inside of dumpster.

Weighed down with adolescent despair, Nao is sent to spend the summer with her great-grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun, and it is by learning Jiko’s story that the girl begins to find her place in time.

Ruth becomes captivated by the girl’s voice, at times chatty and whimsical, at other times, sharply observant and profound, and realizes that she, Ruth, is the future reader Nao was writing to. She becomes obsessed with learning more about this girl, whether she did commit suicide, or was she a victim of the earthquake and resulting tsunami?

In its mix of humor and pathos and profundity, the novel reminds me of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which captured the experiences and thoughts of another bright, lonely girl planning her own demise.

A finalist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, A Tale for the Time Being becomes a metafictional meditation on time and how, through time, we are interconnected with all other “time beings.”

Like Ruth, we become Nao’s future reader of her diary and need to know what became of the girl. Take it from me: This book is well worth your time.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (May 15-June14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.