This was a book that I enjoyed, not only because it was a good story, but because I felt like I learnt something new while I was reading it.
A Tale for the Time Being is about Ruth (perhaps an autobiographical element here, I don’t know), a Japanese Canadian writer who lives on a remote Canadian island. One day she discovers something unusual on her walk along the beach. She finds a young girl’s diary, a watch and a bundle of letters inside a freezer bag, washed up amongst the debris from the latest storm to hit the island. This diary belongs to Nao, a Japanese school student, who addresses her diary to a future reader – Ruth. Nao writes her diary as an escape from her unhappy home life. Nao is bullied at school and her father has attempted suicide several times. It is a sad story and there are some very harrowing passages, especially discussing the bullying she experiences.
But her narrative is also full of humour and love. The aim of her diary was to write about the life of her Great-Grandmother, Jiko, a hundred-and-four year old Buddhist nun, who is a real role model for Nao. Nao is sent (at first unwillingly) to spend a summer with her great-grandma at her Buddhist temple, and here she learns to respect herself and lead a peaceful life. She learns a lot of things about her family and her ancestors, one of whom was a kamikaze pilot in the Second World War. His are the letters and the watch that accompany the diary, which add another element to the story and another level of interest.
I learnt several things about Japanese culture from reading, some of which were so intersting and I would really like to look up further. It is fascinating how cultures can be so different yet we all experience the same human feelings and emotions.
Unfortunately the ending sort of spoilt the book for me. I didn’t like the fantasy element that is introduced when Ruth believes that some of the pages have disappeared in the diary – not the actual physical pages but the writing on them. They then reappear after Ruth has some kind of mystical dream about Nao – it was all just a bit strange and I found it irritating. I think I am just a little too particular about genre-crossover so other people probably wouldn’t consider this an issue but I do not like it when a novel that has been very realist decides to introduce some fantastical and implausible detail; to me, it is a cop out.
I also felt that Ruth was coming to some kind of revelation about her own life through reading Nao’s diary, but this epiphany of sorts never materialised – there were definitely hints at Ruth’s dissatisfaction but no change was made and this seemed a bit of a disappointment to me.
Despite this, I still liked the novel and I would recommend it. I enjoyed the mix of cultures and the double narrative of Nao and Ruth. I’d certainly never read anything like it before and I’m glad I chose it.