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Ruth Ozeki: A Tale for the Time Being

As with My Year of Meats, Ruth Ozeki tells the tale of two women, one a Japanese woman and one a Japanese-American woman, clearly based on the author. The Japanese-American woman is even called Ruth and her husband is called Oliver, as is Ozeki’s husband. Like Ozeki and her husband, they live in a fairly remote part of British Columbia. Ruth is a writer but she has abandoned her recent novel to write an account of her mother’s Alzheimer’s. Oliver is a naturalist, who revels in outdoor pursuits. One day, while walking on the beach by her house, she comes across a plastic bag containing something red. She is not sure what it is, though thinks it might be a jellyfish. In any case, she picks it up to dispose of at home but inadvertently leaves it on the doorstep where Oliver finds it. He opens it and finds a sealed Hello Kitty lunchbox, containing a diary written in Japanese, some letters, also in Japanese, and an old watch. Ruth reads Japanese and gradually reads the diary. It tells the story of Naoko Yasutani, known as Nao (there are lots of word plays with Nao/now).

Nao is sixteen years old. When she was three, her father, who was a top programmer, got a highly paid job with a California-based dotcom. He made a lot of money and the family lived in Sunnyvale, California, where Nao was very happy. Unfortunately, he invested his money in stock options with the company. When the dotcom bubble burst, the company went under. Mr Yasutani was out of a job, broke and had to leave the US, as his visa was no longer valid. The family returned to Tokyo, where they lived in a rundown flat in a rundown area. Mr. Yasutani failed to find a job, became suicidal and turned to drink and then depression. Mrs. Yasutani eventually got a job. Nao, whose written Japanese was below her grade level, had to go into a lower grade. There she was mercilessly teased and bullied by her fellow students and did not make any friends. She is very unhappy with her life and wants only to return to Sunnyvale.

She has started the diary, which she is writing to an unknown reader, but also to tell the story of her great-grandmother, Jiko Yasutani. Jiko Yasutani is allegedly 104 years old (according to her; family records were destroyed in World War II), a former novelist and a nun. She is to become Nao’s guru, as she is full of sound advice, though we do not meet her for quite a while. Meanwhile, Ruth and Oliver are reading the story and learning about Nao’s story but also are worried that Nao was a victim of the Fukushima disaster and that the lunch box they had found had been washed away after her death. However, detailed research on the internet reveals nothing.

The book starts to get much more serious as we get further in. Ozeki is concerned not just about the life and death of individuals – though she is very concerned that both Nao and her father have suicidal tendencies – but also about other weighty matters, including, in particular, environmental issues. She weighs in on the Fukushima disaster and mentions the fact that there were problems well before the earthquake. But other serious topics also come in. The 9/11 events are reported and how they affected both Ruth and her husband and Nao and her family (Nao’s father becomes obsessed with the Falling Man). But quantum physics also comes into it and colours her reading and how she tells her story. We have known that time is an issue as, at the very beginning, indeed in the first sentence, Nao refers to Dogen Zenji’s Time-Being concept and then says A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. She keeps her diary in an old cover (remodded for sale) of À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; Remembrance of Things Past). Both Ruth and Nao discuss the concept of time and how our perception of its varies. In short, what started as a relatively conventional story, has now become a very original one.

I did enjoy My Year of Meats but felt Ozeki was more concerned with making her political points, albeit in a generally light-hearted and humorous way. This book is definitely a step up and a worthy addition to The Man Booker shortlist.

Publishing history

First published in 2013 by Viking