Shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ by Ruth Ozeki tells the story of a diary written a decade ago by a Japanese teenage girl called Nao which is washed up on an island off British Colombia in a Hello Kitty lunchbox after the tsunami in 2011. The diary is discovered by a novelist called Ruth who tries to find out what happened to Nao and her family, including her great-grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun and her great-uncle, Haruki, a kamikaze pilot in the Second World War.
Those who dismiss Booker Prize-shortlisted books as turgid or too literary need to read ‘A Tale for the Time Being’. It is a book which poses some deep philosophical and metaphysical questions about time, space and the interconnectedness of just about everything yet it is immensely readable and can be enjoyed by those who know nothing about Zen Buddhism. Philosophy aside, the story is based fundamentally on inventive storytelling and excellent character development. Nao’s diary entries in particular were very engaging and Ozeki captures the voice of a teenage girl very well.
My one gripe about the story is that Ruth’s decision to read the diary entries episodically in between her investigations into Nao’s life doesn’t fit convincingly with her strong desire to find out what happened to Nao and her family. It would surely have made much more sense for her to read the diary all in one go. However, my less cynical side is willing to overlook this. After all, making this particular narrative aspect more realistic would have resulted in a less compelling story and would have revealed too much too soon.
I am really pleased that ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ made it on to the Booker shortlist as it really does offer something genuinely different. This is partly because stories featuring 104-year-old anarchist feminist Zen Buddhist nuns are not particularly common but it is also partly because it is not what many people would consider to be “typical” Man Booker Prize material (if there is such a thing). Will it win? I don’t know, but I think it is a very strong contender and if its appearance on the shortlist means that more people discover and enjoy Ozeki’s work, then that can only be a good thing.