Rating: 3 stars
“Fiction had its own time and logic. That was its power.” So says the character Ruth in writer Ruth Ozeki’s novel about loneliness, outsidership, time and memory. She is describing the way, as a writer (because character Ruth is also a writer), she can lose all sense of time when she is crafting a fictional world. As a reader, it’s a feeling I recognise. It can be easy to be swallowed up by a book, to become immersed in its fictions, to believe them to be real, and to feel as though you are surfacing from a dream or deep water when you put the book down and re-enter the actual world. It’s a feeling I recognise as an historian, when I read personal accounts of lives lived long ago. True accounts that start to feel like fiction as I embroider and fill in the gaps with imagination and supposition.
A Tale for the Time Being is one of those rare things – a fictional history threaded through with enough historical fact to feel real. Like character Ruth, I felt as though diarist Nao’s experiences were happening in real time. Diarist Nao, whose Japanese name is pronounced the same as the English word ‘now’. Perhaps it’s a cause and effect thing – hearing ‘now’ when reading Nao somehow putting me in the moment.
It’s a sad story for most of the book. Nao’s world is full of bullies, exploitation and tension. Character Ruth’s world is full of frustration, dementia and drift. It’s a story of how cruel people can be, how vicious, from the officers who bullied young men into becoming soldiers during WW2, and the tech company bosses who punished an employee for having a conscience, to the school children who bullied their classmate into flunking out, and the maid café hostess who coerced a schoolgirl into a life of prostitution. It’s a tale of how the world’s indifference and outright opposition to what we believe in and how that defines us can make us feel inadequate and sometimes worthless. Another character in the book asks, “How can there be so much pain in the world?” The unspoken answer is that nature is cruel and humanity defenceless before it.
In some ways, the book felt like more of the same, similar in feeling and style to other contemporary writers, but it also crept up on me through its lightweight veneer to become something deeper, something more profound than just another book about the strangeness of Japanese culture to the Western mind and the way time is more the quantum tangle of string than the linear chronology we experience.
It was an interesting, at times painful, read. As well as the obvious connection I felt as someone with a parent with dementia, I reacted to the bullying storyline quite strongly. I don’t like bullies. I was bullied at school by some classmates for being different (studious, bookwormy, knowing too many facts, being less well-off financially), so I found reading the scenes of schoolday bullying uncomfortable. My experience wasn’t as extreme as that portrayed in the book, but I understood the feelings of the bullied character. The story has peaks and troughs and is self-indulgent in places, but it is one of the more stimulating books that I’ve read in recent years. I feel like I’ve learned some stuff, and I’ve been inspired to put À la recherche du temps perdu onto my reading list.