In the book's opening, Ozeki discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed onto the beach. Inside are letters in antiquated Japanese, a French composition book, a wind-up watch and a diary written mostly in English. The narrative alternates between the journal entries and Ozeki's search for the 16-year-old Japanese girl who wrote the diary. Humorous anecdotes about living on a remote island in Canada make it easier to get through a story of abuse and neglect. Like Ruth, I kept turning the pages to learn what happened to Nao, pronounced and symbolically "now."
"Print is predictable and impersonal, conveying information in a mechanical transaction to the reader's eye. Handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin."
Nao grew up in California, but after the dot com bubble burst, she returned with her impoverished parents to Tokyo. At school she is bullied for being too American, and even her teacher does nothing to stop the harassment. In Japan there is a word for ritual bullying: ijime. Nao's father is too depressed and her mother too overworked to help her. The only person who reaches out to Nao is her Aunt Jiko, an 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun. The best part is the summer that Nao spends with Jiko at her temple.
"Have you ever bullied a wave?" Jiko asked me at the beach.Stylistically, A Tale for the Time Being is an unusual mix of fact and fiction. There are footnotes and appendixes explaining Japanese terms, Zen Buddhism, western philosophy and even Quantum Mechanics. In sharp contrast to this academic approach, Ozeki tosses in a bit of magical realism. It's an odd juxtaposition, but she makes it work in a way that reminded me of Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite authors. Like Murakami, Ozeki is fascinated with the seedy underworld and uses surreal devices to flip between contemporary Japan and horrific scenes from World War II. Cats and occasionally birds play pivotal roles. However, Ozeki's personal blend of memoir and fiction makes her work original.
Given all the stereotyping of Japanese women in western literature, I loved these lines from Nao's first journal entry:
"Everything I write will be historically true and empowering to women, and not a lot of foolish geisha crap. So if kinky nasty things are your pleasure, please close this book and give it to your wife or co-worker and save yourself a lot of time and trouble."A Tale for the Time Being is an important addition to the emerging genre of Bully Lit. Too many stories about bullying have fairytale endings in which the bully is justly punished or realizes the errors of his/her ways, but this novel offers no clean resolution. Instead, Ozeki draws a parallel between schoolroom bullying in 2000 and Japan's treatment of young kamikaze soldiers in the 1940s. By linking bullying to wartime atrocities, the author gives broader meaning and cultural context to the issue.
As a victim of childhood bullying myself, if not nearly as severe, I found Ozeki's novel only too believable. Reading a book like this back then would have helped me cope, although the scenes of child prostitution, torture and sexual deviancy mark this book as adult literary fiction. Nothing is gratuitous or titillating, but it was still hard to read. I had to take restorative breaks.
By the book's end, I felt like I'd corresponded with Ozeki personally. It was hard to believe that Nao wasn't real too. My only criticism was the the ending lacked full closure, but that was intentional. I can't stop thinking about this marvelous book. A Tale for the Time Being inspires me as a writer too.
Reviewer's Disclaimer: I bought this book at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine.
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Revision Watch: author John McPhee has a fabulous essay in last week's New Yorker on the painful process of writing a first draft and the art of copyediting: "Draft No. 4".