Before I get on to talking about the content of the novel, I just want to mention what a fabulous job Canongate have done with this book. On publication day, you could buy the novel in one of four formats – hardback, paperback, ebook and audio book, all priced as you’d expect. What is really fabulous though is that if you buy the gorgeous hardback from the Canongate online shop, you get the ebook as well – hurrah! I think I’m right in saying this is the first time this sort of package has been offered by a publisher and it’s brilliant. I’ve said several times on Twitter that, as someone who loves beautiful books but doesn’t want to carry them around with me anymore now I have the convenience of an ereader, this is exactly what I want. And although I was given an eproof of the book, I will be buying the hardback because the design is fantastic – and so is the content.
My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. 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.
So begins the novel. Although this may or may not be the start of the story. This start is the one written by Naoko Yasutani, a Japanese school girl who writes her diary inside what was once a copy of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). She says that the diary will tell the story of her great-grandmother Yasutani Jiko, a nun, novelist and New Woman but as Nao’s story progresses it really is her story and that of her family.
However, we are only reading Nao’s story because Ruth, an American novelist now living in Canada, has found a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of the island she inhabits with her husband Oliver, cat Schrödinger (although they tend to call him Pest or Pesto) and the sort of characters you might expect to find on an isolated island. The lunchbox contains:
a small stack of handwritten letters; a pudgy bound book with a faded red cover; a sturdy antique wristwatch with a matte black face and a luminous dial.
They suspect that the package is one of the many items lost during the 2011 tsunami and swept out to sea. Ruth begins to read the diary, adding footnotes for the Japanese colloquialisms and then searching online to see whether she can trace the girl and her family. As the novel progresses, she becomes increasingly wrapped up in Nao’s story and wants to interact with her, even though this diary must have been written several years previously.
I will write down everything I know about Jiko’s life in Marcel’s book, and when I’m done, I’ll just leave it somewhere, and you will find it!
How cool is that? It feels like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you’ve found it, you’re reaching back to touch me!
If you ask me, it’s fantastically cool and beautiful. It’s like a message in a bottle, cast out onto the ocean of time and space. Totally personal, and real, too, right out of old Jiko’s and Marcel’s pre-wired world. It’s the opposite of a blog. It’s an antiblog, because it’s only meant for one special person, and that person is you. And if you’ve read this far, you probably understand what I mean. Do you understand? Do you feel special yet?
I’ll just wait here a while to see if you answer…
I love a good bit of metafiction but Ozeki takes it further than that. Really this is a book about quantum physics and whether we can exist in more than one state at the same time. Does Nao exist in the time she wrote the diary and also Ruth’s time as she reads and edits it and also our time as we read it?
If that sounds complicated and off-putting, please don’t let that stop you from reading the book. It’s one of those rare texts which works on several levels meaning that if you want to read a cracking good story, this is a cracking good story and if you want something you can mull over, discuss with other readers and re-read again and again to unpick the ideas further, this is also your book.
I’m baffled as to why this book isn’t on the Women’s Fiction Prize longlist; I suspect, in time, we will be proclaiming it a masterpiece.
Thanks to Penguin (US) for the review copy.
This sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for your review.
Thanks for reading.
Outstanding book. My only criticism is it’s a bit to Zen didactic. Otherwise a great read.
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I loved this book. So well written and fascinating. Great review 🙂
ps – I have to say I was unimpressed by the covers, a tad too gimmicky for me. I believe Cannongate spent a fortune on them and the marketing of the book generally, which included a poster campaign on the London underground. I heard Ruth Ozeki talk about A Tale for The Time Being at our local book shop, she really is a eloquent speaker, so if you ever get the chance to hear her, it’s worth it.