Reviewer: Catriona Troth
What we thought: In a sleazy cafe somewhere in Tokyo, a Japanese schoolgirl called Nao begins writing a diary in English. The diary is disguised inside the covers of an old copy of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, and she is apparently writing for one special but unknown reader.
As Nao explains, we are all Time Beings, living in the flow of time. Perhaps because of the sound of her name, Nao is fascinated with the idea of ‘now’, with capturing one of the 6,400,099,980 moments that make up each individual day.
Thousands of miles away, on an island in Vancouver Sound, a Japanese American woman called Ruth finds a barnacle-encrusted plastic bag washed up on a beach. Inside is a Hello Kitty lunch box, some Japanese letters written in old-fashioned Kanji, a small composition book written in French – and Nao’s diary.
Ruth becomes obsessed with the diary. How did it get there? Is she the mysterious reader for whom Nao was writing? Is the apparently suicidal teenager reaching out to her and if so, is she still in time to save her? And what is contained in the letters and composition book?
Between the two of them they must unravel the story of Haruki #1, Nao’s uncle who died in the Second World War, find out why Nao’s father, Haruki#2, keeps trying to kill himself, and maybe, just maybe, save Nao herself.
To help them, there is Oliver, Ruth’s husband, an artist and environmentalist ‘with a mind that opened up the world for her, cracking it open like a cosmic egg to reveal things she would never have noticed on her own.’ And Nao’s 104 year old grandmother, Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun who lives in a temple in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, but who was once a feminist, an anarchist and a novelist.
A Tale for the Time Being is a sparkling jewel of a book. Its broad sweep takes in Zen Buddhism, the ecology of the Pacific Ocean, 9/11, the Japanese Tsunami, the kamikaze ‘sky soldiers’ of the Second World War and Quantum Physics. There is a plot, but as in a kaleidoscope, the reader must discover its pattern amidst a dance of colours and ideas.
You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Jostein Gardner, Elif Shafak, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,
Avoid if you dislike: Stories that grow like coral, rather than having a strong narrative line
Ideal accompaniments: Sweet rice balls and chocolate while sitting zazen on a beach
Genre: Literary Fiction
Available from Amazon.