27 January, 2023

LitStack Rec: Bridge & A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozekia tale

Someone recently asked me for a recommendation for their book club, and I considered Ruth Ozeki’s contemporary speculative fiction novel, A Tale for the Time Being. It’s a book that could spur some great discussion. A simple synopsis of the novel comes easily: when a tin lunchbox containing a Japanese schoolgirl’s diary from years earlier washes up on a Canadian island’s shoreline, it affects a young writer’s life in unexpected and contemplative ways. But this snippet is ever so simplistic for what is a much deeper, more involving story.

Yet to explain further is to be in danger of getting lost in an undeservedly convoluted description. How far does one go in trying to define the character of Naoko Yasutani, a teenager who, at first glance, is just another giggly girl sitting in a cafe with her Hello Kitty lunchbox, fiddling with her hair and writing in her diary? She seems like any other 16 year old in bustling Tokyo. But it doesn’t take long to discover that Naoko – or Nao, for short – is not a typical Japanese schoolgirl. She is a time being. And she is writing for someone in the future. Who that person is or will be, she has no idea, but that’s not the point.

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. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid cafe in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future. And if you’re reading this, then maybe by now you’re wondering about me, too.

Nao, for all her straightforward simplicity lives in a very complicated world, and has much to think about and to process.

And then there is Ruth, the novelist who finds the diary. She is a mystery that we understand more readily, one that is more familiar. She has moved from New York City to live on a creaky old homestead on a green Pacific Canadian island with her husband and their cat. Ruth suspects that the diary came to their shore by means of the 2011 tsunami, a devastating possibility that both intrigues and terrifies her.

Strange things – personal, muted things – happen in Desolation Bay, where Ruth lives. For example, along with the appearance of the lunchbox, Ruth’s husband, Oliver, sights a Jungle Crow, a smaller, foreign version of the typical crows indigenous to the Pacific Northwest. Oliver, who knows these sorts of things, surmises that it may have floated over on the flotsam from the tsunami. The black bird seems to hover around the homestead, watching, observing. Then one night, Ruth has a dream of an old nun, high up on a mountainside in Japan. These things affect her, more deeply than she realizes. She determines that she will find out if Naoko Yasutami is a real person, and if so, what happened to her. Obtaining this knowledge becomes important to Ruth, as if finding it out will save Nao somehow. Was the girl swept away in the giant waves of 2011? Is a memory all that is left of her, this diary written to a stranger? Or was history more kind to this time being?

That’s just a hint of the layers to be found in this amazing tale. Profound, deeply moving, harrowing, at times horrifying, but also at times heartwarming and humorous, A Tale for the Time Being reminds us how important connections are in our lives, and how easily we can misunderstand or disregard those connections if we do not take the time to stop and acknowledge them.

Sounds like mighty good book club fare to me, eh?
—Sharon Browning


  • Lauren Alwan

    Lauren Alwan’s fiction has appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories, the Southern Review, the Alaska Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, in the Bellevue Literary Review. She is the recipient of a First Pages Prize, the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, and.a citation of Notable in Best American Essays. Her essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Catapult, World Literature Today, The Rumpus, The Millions, Writer's Digest, and others. She is a prose editor at the museum of americana, an online literary review. Follow her on Twitter at @lauren_alwan and learn more at www.laurenalwan.com