A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, Canongate, RRP£20/Viking, RRP$28.95, 422 pages
One day, about a year after the Japanese tsunami, frustrated author Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach near her island home off Canada’s west coast. Subsequent inspection reveals that it contains a diary written by a teenage Japanese girl, another missive in French, and a still-ticking watch that turns out to have been worn by a long-dead kamikaze pilot.
So begins the “relationship” between Ruth, who shares a first name with Ruth Ozeki, the novel’s author, and Nao, a Japanese girl struggling with bullying and depression. Ruth has no idea if Nao is still alive, or whether the diary has washed up only after its author committed suicide or perished in the 2011 tsunami. Nao, writing for a single, unknown recipient, doesn’t know who is reading her intimate confessions. The unspoken hope is that the two can somehow save each other.
A Tale for the Time Being, Ozeki’s third novel, is an intriguing tale about connections across time, space and cultures. It has a sense of unfolding mystery and philosophical discovery, though the latter is sometimes smuggled in too crudely – like finding Kierkegaard quoted on the back of a breakfast cereal box.
The book successfully conjures up two distinct cultures bridged by a confused but likeable teenager. “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being,” she announces in the opening chapter, using a Buddhist-inspired reference to “someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”
Nao is writing from Fifi’s Lovely Apron, a maid café (staffed by women with “pushed-up breasts and frilly uniforms”) in Akihabara, Tokyo’s frenetic and nerd-infested Electricity Town.
Nao – whose name is a play on “now” – has recently returned from Sunnyvale, California, where she spent much of her childhood. The return to Japan has not been easy. Her father, who lost his job as a computer programmer, is unemployed and suicidal. When he is not plotting his own death, he spends his days folding origami insects in the family’s two-room apartment. Nao’s mother relieves her stress by watching jellyfish in the aquarium. Nao herself is ostracised at school for not being properly Japanese.
Nao’s teenage slang is helpfully annotated by Ruth. Thus we learn that butsubutsu means a spotty rash and a kissa is a coffee shop. She speaks with a frankness that is endearing for those who like that sort of thing: “I’m actually not a big fan of hentai [perverts], so if you are one, then please just put this book down immediately and don’t read any further, okay?” she writes.
The Japanese sections alternate with chapters set in Ruth’s “fog-enshrouded outpost”; the lively narrator in Tokyo is the more entertaining of the two, though Ozeki tries to cram in just a little bit too much. In addition to bullying, suicide and kamikaze pilots, we get love hotels, the Fukushima disaster, vengeful ghosts and even an auction of girls’ panties.
The sections in Canada, by contrast, can seem a little dull. That is partly because Ozeki successfully conjures up the melancholic atmosphere of a community that has cut itself off.
There is something genuinely touching about Nao’s story and the way in which Ruth is drawn into her strange life. “How cool is that?” observes Nao; “I’m reaching forward through time to touch you and, now that you’ve found it [the diary], you’re reaching back to touch me!” Ruth feels as though “she’d been trying to suck the girl out of the glowing screen” of her computer after a fruitless search for the names of tsunami victims. She becomes ever more obsessed and, at one point, appears to infiltrate Nao’s story by dreaming her way into the teenager’s existence.
Just as Ruth is connected to Nao, a person she has never met, so Nao latches on to the memory of her great uncle, a kamikaze pilot who agonised over his role in a war he didn’t believe in. The pilot’s thoughts are recorded in a secret diary, which comes to Nao much as Nao’s own diary sails across space and time to Ruth.
Ozeki was brought up in Connecticut by an American father and a Japanese mother. She is also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest, and the teachings of Zen Master Dogen, a 13th-century practitioner of zazen meditation, are woven into the text – though at times the stitch work is a little too mechanical. Nao practises zazen with her great grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist monk called Jiko, an anarcho-feminist who opposed Japan’s militaristic emperor-cult of the 1930s. On reading this, Ruth, too, takes up zazen.
There is much of Ozeki in these pages. She is an intelligent presence, but the book would have been even better if the author had kept her distance.
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor