A Tale for the Time Being, written in dual narrative form, tells the stories of two people--one sixteen, one late middle aged--who find their totally different lives tied together. Nao, a Japanese teen who has decided to commit suicide as her life--bullied at school and watching her dad fall apart--seems more and more ruinous. Her diary, detailing both Nao's story and that of her 104 year old nun grandmother, is found by Ruth. Ruth (who I believe is inspired by the author--no reason, just that they have the same full name) is an aging writer who, despite living in idyllic paradise, is discontented and grappling with the meaning of life in the same way that Nao is. As Nao's story gets darker and darker, Ruth finds herself consumed with the desire to know more about Nao and to help her, learning from Nao at every turn.
Despite the fascinating plot, I'll focus on just the writing. Nao's narrative is written mostly in none too elegant sentences whose purpose is to tell the facts, and nothing more. Still, within the information wonderful insights about life come through, told perfectly as a teenager can tell them. Her encounters with her grandmother Jiko had the most poignancy. As Nao states about her Jiko, “Sometimes when she told stories about the past her eyes would get teary from all the memories she had, but they weren't tears. She wasn't crying. They were just the memories, leaking out.” I loved reading Nao's frank yet beautiful observations and stories. Contrastingly, Ruth, the author, writes philosophical insights filled with description. Her sentences managed to be factual (with frequent tidbits from Ruth's awesome autodidact husband) and completely sombre without becoming stuffy. Her story was told partly in flashbacks, to a simpler time, and partly in her current, obsessive quest to find out more about Nao. Ruth wrote prose--"when she woke to an insipid beam of winter sunlight filtering in through the bamboo outside her window, she felt oddly at peace and well rested." Reading Ruth's narrative felt like reading something serious and deep, and yet beautiful, not boring.
I'm glad that A Tale for the Time Being wasn't just Ruth's sober poetry or Nao's candid notes--the book needed both halves to be perfectly yin-yang (among the many concepts I learned about in this book). As cliched as it sounds, reading it was a journey of knowledge and faith. It was both intellectual (look for a surprising quantum mechanics slant at the end!) and spiritual (I now understand the principles of zen in total). I am 100% a better person for having read this book.
“She sat back on her heels and nodded. The thought experiment she proposed was certainly odd, but her point was simple. Everything in the universe was constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.
That’s what it means to be a time being, old Jiko told me, and then she snapped her crooked fingers again.
And just like that, you die."