Along Japan’s rugged coastline stone markers carry ominous warnings: ‘Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point’ – As most of us will remember, in March 2011, an earthquake reaching 9.0 on the Richter scale wracked the island, causing a huge tsunami that swept away entire towns and villages , killing thousands of poor people, these ancient warnings largely left unheeded.
Ruth, one of two intriguing narrators in Ruth Ozeki’s Booker-prize shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being reminds us of the facts and figures surrounding the catastrophe, bringing the human element back into sharp focus. Walking on the beach one day she stumbles across some ominous debris; a barnacle covered bag concealing a Hello Kitty lunch box, filled with a diary, letters and memories of a Japanese teenager.
Enter Nao. As well as having to deal with the ordinary troubles of a teenage schoolgirl, Nao’s daily strife has escalated to an unimaginable level. After losing his job in America and moving his family back home, her father is suicidal, her mother despondent and her classmates torturous. Her salvation lies in her 104 year old great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun and the legacy of her great-uncle Haruki; philosopher and kamikaze pilot. Sheltering within her rickety wooden house on a remote Canadian island, Ruth unravels Nao’s mystery in her own real-time, the mystery of her fate looming ever larger as she reads on.
I’ve heard many a bookish internetter proclaim that this poignant novel should have been the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize over Eleanor Catton’s doorstop slice of historical fiction The Lumineries. Having not yet read the latter I don’t particularly feel qualified to judge, yet I always find the entire Man Booker process rather dull. Although it is doubtlessly an absolute coup for a writer to win such a prestigious award, as an avid reader I always feel a little shaky on the criteria used by the ever-changing panel of judges and, frankly, fatigued by the hoo hah that surrounds it (e.g. Goldfinch-gate). Personally I’d much rather side step the entire thing and come to the novels (if I ever come to them at all) with a fresh set of eyes.
With fresh eyes attached, I delved into this wonderful book with enthusiasm. With most dual-narrative novels I often find myself entirely attached to one thread and completely nonplussed by the other. Not so with Ozeki. Although Ruth’s daily grind of power cuts and Google searches could so easily become tiresome, I found refuge in her small world, just as she does with Nao’s diary, falling rather in love with her (much more charismatic) other half Oliver and their adorable cat ‘Pest’. With her (rather stereotypical) profession as a writer and her isolated position helping make sense of her obsession with the teenager, her limited experiences help to focus the book on the ‘real’ drama across the water.
Nao’s convincingly immature narrative on the other hand can become quite brutal at times. With the bullying at school becoming so severe it extends even to the teachers, Ruth’s anxiety over her reflects our own as we read on in horror. The Tokyo landscape is dark, bleak and grey lending her world an oppression and sense of impending doom that we simply cannot shake.
In contrast, the peaceful beauty of Jiko’s temple, to which Nao retires to recuperate, is the perfect antidote and complete literary indulgence to a Japanophile such as myself. Hot baths, tea, cats and Buddhist mantras sounds like my idea of heaven and it is in this calm environment that the teenager begins to realise the significance of her family’s past. Although the added historical element and narrative of a WWII kamikaze pilot may simply sound like a plot too far, Ozeki’s deft skill as a writer grounds this element of the story, enriching the lives of those who encounter it and making the unknown fates of the women we have grown to know so well all the more meaningful.
Perhaps not a prize winner but beautiful all the same.