Slightly autobiographical, the book follows Ruth, an author facing some intense writer’s block that extends when she discovers a journal washed up on her beach somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The journal belongs to Nao Yasutani, a Japanese schoolgirl who struggles with suicidal ideation in response to her similarly minded father and the acute bullying she faces from her classmates.
As Ruth staggers her reading so that she can live Nao’s life in accordance to time, she scours the internet for any sort of indication that Nao existed at all, that the journal is not simply a hallucination, a tear in the many universes. Following themes of the meaning of time and the search for an inner peace, “A Tale for the Time Being” is a novel that tries.
In my opinion, it tries too hard. The “good” parts really were stunning: Ozeki’s prose is stark and beautiful, and the discussions on war felt necessary. And yet, the novel fell short of my expectations.
As a 16-year-old girl like Nao, her chapters were too much. Too brutal, too traumatic, too unnecessary. I understand the desire to reinforce the bullying Nao went through, to emphasize that her daily life was unending torture, but the same sentiment could have been achieved with less of a focus on the gritty facts of her bullying.
As Nao was the most developed character in the novel, she is the character to relate to, the one with the most interesting story. In spite of that, the graphic descriptions of the cruelty she faced felt almost indulgent, as if Ozeki found great pleasure in the misery of her main character. It was unnecessary. Good novels do not need to be filled with gratuitous trauma in order to make a point.
Surprisingly or not, much of “A Tale for the Time Being” was unnecessary. Other than Nao’s acute suffering, the main themes, though explored very deeply, were not explored with much subtlety. As if her audience has no prior experience in critical thinking, Ozeki explains each of her themes in excruciating detail, spending pages making it very clear what the desired takeaways of the novel are, forcing a singular understanding of her writing. She does this often using Oliver, Ruth’s husband — both in real life and in the novel — who so obviously is only there to serve the purpose of info-dumping and making already explicit themes even more explicit.
My greatest lament over “A Tale for the Time Being” will always be how good it could have been. It could have examined mental health in Eastern countries in a helpful way. It could have had some sort of coherent ending. It could have created an actual storyline for the character of Ruth, instead of making her the analysis the audience is supposed to create from Nao’s chapters. It could have been. And that is the largest disappointment of them all.
Ruth Ozeki admits to not knowing any 16-year-old girls while writing Nao, a character that happens to be a 16 year-old girl. Not surprising, but still disappointing. Frankly, if I were Ruth Ozeki and that were true, I would not admit it. I, at least, would have preserved some sort of dignity.