Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #53: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki


Now begins the rapid dash to get myself caught back up with reviews. Were it not for my interest in The Night Eternal starting to lag, chances are I’d be wrapping up reading that and moving onto the next one in line, not trying to make a dent in my review backlog which includes a total of 13 books as of this moment. I guess, then, I can’t be too angry with Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan for face-planting two consecutive times after a gripping first installment. I’ve been in dire need of a breather, yet couldn’t bring myself to take one. Thankfully, the two of them came along and forced me into it.

As my backlog is in the double digits, these may be out of order, but I hardly think that matters. It sets off some alarm bells in my head, since I prefer everything to be neat and orderly. However, if I can handle my movie log not being 100% accurate on account of letting it grow wildly outdated as well, I should be able to put up with a book or two being accidentally swapped places. So I begin with Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, a novel that seemed, to me, patently confused. At first, it aims to tell the stories of Nao’s grandmother, Jiko. Or so Nao’s journal, washed up on the other side of the Pacific and discovered by Ruth, says. The further in I got, however, the more apparent it became that I’d been misled. Jiko was more tertiary character than focal point in a story that felt altogether lacking in a unified purpose.

Were it limited to Nao’s journal entries, thus allowing her to take center stage, reading it wouldn’t have been so frustrating an exercise. Except Ozeki pads out the story with the help of Ruth, the reader (and apparent transcriber) of those same entries. Ruth finds herself so enveloped in them that her own life, especially her marriage, takes a backseat. Not that that’s necessarily an undesirable effect; her and her husband are two of the driest characters I’ve had the misfortune of being introduced to all year long.

Each of her sections is filled out with countless micro-lessons in history, as well as other subjects, that didn’t intrigue me in the slightest. Her husband, in particular, drew my ire every time he spoke up with another of his dull factoids. I cared little about her involvement and wanted instead to return to Nao. Nao, whose style of writing is, in actuality, better suited to standing on its own. She addresses the eventual reader of her journal directly, and I’d rather feel as if I were the one who’d stumbled across it, not another woman who has no life or her own and, due to that, lives almost vicariously through Nao, who adds more excitement to her life than she’s probably ever experienced.

Maybe handling her story that way would’ve lessened my eventual disappointment upon learning it was more Nao’s story than Jiko’s, that this was all introductory material to a greater story we, and Ruth, will never hear told. I wouldn’t have liked it, even in that case, but it would’ve been a noticeable improvement. My frustrations wouldn’t have had as much time to blossom into a full-blown rage at Ozeki, the consummate tease. Or perhaps, without Ruth to balance things out, Nao would’ve struck me as even more irksome than she already did. There exists no simple solution for A Tale for the Time Being’s problems, so I doubt it would make that big a difference either way. So, instead, I’ll just hold out hope for a follow-up in which Jiko’s stories are finally told. It would surely be an improvement over this.


Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.


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