Book Babble #3 – A Tale For The Time Being

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

★★★★☆

I always used to have a bit of a thing for ‘diary’ books when I was younger – Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, Do Not Read This Book – and A Tale For The Time Being is perhaps the first ‘mature’ diary novel I’ve read. One half of this novel consists of the diary of Nao, a Japanese schoolgirl, and the other half consists of Ruth Ozeki’s fictional account of reading and investigating the diary. That might sound a little odd, but the idea works – mostly (I’ll get to that later).

Ruth Ozeki stumbles upon a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach after the 2011 Japanese tsunami, and inside, along with French letters and a watch, she finds the diary of a schoolgirl. This is the diary of Nao. She grew up in America but moved to Japan with her parents, yet she feels incredibly isolated in Japan. Her new schoolmates bully her relentlessly whilst her parents struggle with making their life in Japan, and this is what leads Nao to begin her diary. Initially, she intends to document the life of her grandmother, but the diary clearly revolves around her own life.

The opening page is immediately gripping – Nao is funny, clever, witty and instantly likeable. Ozeki perfectly captures the voice of a teenage girl who has been let down again and again but battles through with dry humour and hilarious observations (much like Midori in Norwegian Wood). Despite the comedy of Nao’s story, there’s also some very unpleasant and, quite frankly, horrifying anecdotes in her tale. Although mostly a very sympathetic character, Nao is not just the victim of bullying; she has endless layers, each slowly uncovered in the pages of this novel. Sure, her grandmother is talked about, but Nao never truly wanted to write about her – she needed to get down her own story.

Nao’s diary is interwoven with Ozeki’s fictional third-person account – she finds the diary, reads it, discusses it with her husband, and researches it to finds out more about Nao’s true identity. It certainly is a unique choice, and for the most part, a well-executed one: Ozeki experiences the reader’s curiosity and intrigue, and her discussions with her husband are almost a metaphor for our own internal dialogue as we explore not just the warmth of Nao’s tale but also the frightening depth. However, I quickly began to lose interest in Ozeki’s chapters. They seemed to vary from captivating to downright boring, and things went truly awry when Ozeki began to have dreams about Nao’s diary. I found myself skipping over the more tedious chapters because, to be honest, they really didn’t add anything to the story. Or maybe I’m just a bad reader!

A Tale For The Time Being is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and, for 70% of the time, gripping. It would make a great summer read, and really gives putting a message in a bottle a new meaning…