As I opened my browser to compose this post, my site’s host was confused or rebellious, not just with my words but with everyone’s. We were cut off, it seems, our words tossed about with the flotsam of the virtual word sea.
Words floating in the sea is precisely where we begin with Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, where a young Japanese girl’s Hello Kitty lunchbox full of words floats its way to the coast of British Columbia and is found by a novelist named Ruth, who translates and treasures it, picking away at it to discover the fate of its writer and the history of what led her to that moment when her words swam away.
I often read at night to the sound of waves (artificial, sigh), the endless whoosh and the cries of seabirds my backdrop as I followed the narrative of this book from East to West, from young (Nao, the girl, is 16) to very, very old (her great-grandmother, Jiko, is 104), and in between (Ruth, our novelist, is in the middle somewhere), from Silicon Valley to a Buddhist temple in Sendai, from the isolation of a girl in her room to that of a woman navigating a new life on an island in the Pacific Northwest. (And, yes, that was one helluva run-on sentence, but so is the sea.)
“Life is full of stories. Or maybe life is only stories,” the wise Jiko says to Nao, who later recounts how “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.”
The stories, the memories leak all over the place. They bounce about and seep quietly in the voices of the three women, and those around them, wonderfully diverse. We relate, somehow to all of them. We delight as much to the quirky, at times irreverent, clever and funny Nao as we do to the sparse wisdom of a very old woman. Their words swirl in eddies which keep us moving forward, in circles, unsure where we’ll end up.
The mean kids at Nao’s school snap and snarl from the page, and we wince at the cruelty of their words, the devastation left by their actions. The ever-curious Oliver, Ruth’s husband, calm and erudite, simple in his complexity, grounds her flights of imagination with often whimsical facts which seem lifted from the pages of an interminably long and interminably fascinating piece from The New Yorker, circa 1979. Old Jiko, while physically dwindling, is a quiet giantess, who never ceases to surprise Nao (and the reader) with her infinite wisdom (she gets Nao better than anyone else, better than Nao herself) but also with her colorful history and the prism onto the present it affords her. This is a woman who has lived and loved and continues to do so, with each breath, with each carefully placed step.
But Nao, dear Nao, the main character and the owner of the lunchbox, daughter of a hikikomori whose sadness and isolation trumps her own, is the one to whom we are most tightly tethered, as she whispers in our ear and tells us of her deepest fears and, in the same breath, jokes and teases and makes us laugh as we clutch her more tightly, looking into her eyes to see if she’s really ok or if its all just a front, fearful that she will really do as she says. Will she? Did she?
Ozeki crafts a wonderful tale. When I read the last word I felt that wonderful sadness which comes at the ending of a good book. Is it really over? Must it be? The whoosh of the waves in my room continues, and I think my memory of Nao and Jiko, of Ruth and Oliver and the others will float around for some time, tossed like jetsam when I ever so reluctantly turned the last page.