Whilst I knew I lacked the interest to read all 6 of the Man Booker shortlist, I at least wanted to get a taste for the flavours on offer. As one of the 3 which attracted me, A Tale for the Time Being was my first port of call.
Something which always fascinates me in literature is the representation and exploration of diverse cultures and I admired the 2013 shortlist for encompassing a wonderful range of these. A Tale for the Time Being was my first real venture into Japanese culture and I learnt a lot more than I had anticipated.
The book’s narrative is split into two; Nao, a 15 year old girl struggling to adapt to life in Tokyo after growing up in Sunnyvale, California and Ruth, a westernised Japanese descendent living in remote Canada with her naturalist husband, Oliver. The two are connected by Nao’s diary, which comes into Ruth’s possession after washing up on a local beach. Ruth is immediately invested and obsessed by Nao’s story and is touched, worried and warmed by it in equal measure.
Criticism has come for Ozeki in that Ruth bears an almost identical resemblance to herself. (The name is the tip of the iceberg) Whilst this is a well-known and not-always ineffective technique, I perhaps have to agree with the critics that have said that it doesn’t add anything to the story as the real magic lies with Nao. I agree also that the ‘reader/writer relationship’ subtext feels a little self-indulgent on Ozeki’s part. (These opinions were expressed on BBC2’s Review Show Man Booker special. Found here: http://bbc.in/1b23Ug9).
I couldn’t help wondering whether it might have been more interesting if the person who found the diary had nothing at all in common with Nao- and maybe even a little disinterested! I realise that this would completely change Ozeki’s intent and perhaps I’m being mildly facetious but this was my genuine thought. However, given the option, I would probably do away with the second narrative altogether.
Sadly ignorant of Japanese culture, I learnt an awful lot about their blighted history and consequent modern-day attitudes. I’ve learnt Japan to be a land of extremes: indescribable violence can sometimes only be a short distance from utter tranquility and peace. A perfect illustration of this would be Nao’s regular visits to a Buddhist temple nestled in the city on the way to school; the school where she endures relentlessly horrifying bullying (ijime). The two intermingle unintentionally and frequently in Nao’s story and this I found very affecting; especially in the retelling of her Great Uncle Haruki’s war exploits.
A Tale for the Time a Being has a lot of ideas, sometimes feeling a little crammed. Nao’s character however, is a triumph: a teen narrator bringing something utterly fresh to the table.
NB. The footnotes may seem heavy to begin with but they are generally interesting and slowly fizzle out throughout the book.