Time is a tricky thing. We are all subject to its effect, yet it remains smugly intangible. Writing a novel about the concept of time has the potential to be dangerously abstract or cliché. But Ruth Ozeki weaves together a string of narratives like a delicate tapestry—of a bullied, 16-year-old Japanese girl and her suicidal father, of her 104-year-old Zen Buddhist great-grandmother, of a World War II kamikaze pilot, of an autobiographical author struggling with her book, of dreams and tsunamis and quantum mechanics. The resulting pattern is breathtaking in both its complexity and clarity. It is a story that is beautiful and funny and sad and might make you cry on the bus.
A Tale for the Time Being (Penguin, 432 pages, $16) is Ozeki's third novel and a Man Booker Prize finalist. It alternates between two primary narratives: Ruth is a writer living on a small island in British Columbia, where she finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox wrapped in freezer bags washed up on the shore. Inside is a diary written in English, letters in Japanese and a small composition book in French. The diary belongs to Nao, a Japanese girl raised in America but relocated back to Tokyo after her father lost his job. She is mercilessly bullied at school as an outsider, but her account of events is matter-of-fact. Instead, she is determined to tell the story of her great-grandmother Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun, before she dies and before Nao ends her own life. Ruth and her husband surmise that the diary has washed ashore as a result of the 2011 tsunami, and Ruth becomes intent on finding information about Nao and her family, but for what purpose? The events in the diary happened more than a decade before; Ruth's present is Nao's past.
Ozeki's tale takes both philosophical and scientific perspectives on the concept of time and its manipulation of the characters' story. From the quantum theory of superposition, to the Zen philosophy of both being and not being, the characters' choices set a course through time that spins through all possible worlds and outcomes, like the swirling ocean gyres that pulled debris from destroyed homes in Japan before depositing it on North American shores.
It is Ozeki's masterful storytelling that prevents the book from becoming saccharine or cliché. Whether describing the final thoughts of a young kamikaze pilot or Nao's torment, Time Being feels at once fiercely personal and larger than itself. It is a tale that encompasses all of us. As Nao describes it, "A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be."
GO: Ruth Ozeki appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, on Monday, Jan. 27. 7:30 pm. Free.