I haven’t been so disappointed by a book for a very long time. I’ve barely seen a bad review of A Tale for the Time Being. Many people whose opinion I value reviewed it favourably. It’s about Buddhism and quantum mechanics, two subjects that pique my interest. I felt so sure I would love this book, yet I found it dry, meandering and crucially lacking a spark to ignite it.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy any of it, as I did. The final chapters are particularly fine, especially as they tie together some of the random, unconnected events that are scattered through the novel. There are some interesting observations about the nature of time, faith and belonging. Also, a quantum physics primer, allusions to Proust and an exploration of the idea that a story is different for every reader. There are some clever parallels drawn between kamikaze pilots and the 9-11 attacks and perhaps most interestingly of all, an examination of the futility (or otherwise) of noble gestures that go unnoticed.
Yet for great tracts of the novel I found myself reading only to find out what the fuss was about rather than any great desire to immerse myself in the book. The narrative is split across the perspectives of two ‘time beings’, i.e. people who exist in time. Nao (- get it? No, it’s not very impressive.) is writing a diary, before her much-alluded-to forthcoming suicide, and Ruth, a quasi-real Ruth Ozeki; a writer who lives on a remote Canadian island.
Ruth lives with her husband and cat, and is of Japanese descent. Nao lives in Tokyo. Ruth finds the diary washed up on the beach with some other paraphernalia that fits in with the story but will spoil the book a little if I tell you what it is. She reads the diary to her husband, and her narrative contains their response to the story contained within. It details how the diary, a story that has travelled through space and time, impacts their lives; in their present, and what is the diary writers’ future (This idea I found interesting). There also some magic-realist, semi-science-fictional shenanigans that don’t make a great deal of sense until the very end.
Nao’s narrative is the diary of a teenager, filled with angst and self obsession. It’s also a harrowing read in places. Nao’s life has collapsed around her. Formerly residing in California the daughter of a software engineer, things came crashing down when her father was made redundant and they were forced to return to Tokyo. Unable to find another job, her father started on a downward spiral of depression culminating in an attempted suicide. Bullied at school and alone in the world, Nao makes a number of bad choices that push her to edge. Her life has but one light, in the form of her 104 year old great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist.
I found myself unable to invest emotional energy in either side of the tale. The blurred edges around the seams of the narratives, I found interesting from a structural (and scientific) point of view, but neither tale invoked excitement in me. If nothing else they were both too long. Ozeki’s point could have been made equally well with a third of the book cut out. Some scenes stirred emotion, but most of it left me dispassionate. I feel that there were bubbles of potential here, but with out that vital spark they remained only inert possibilities. I appreciate this puts me in the minority but I found a Tale for the Time Being to be little more than average.
This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine Programme.