It takes me a long time to get arond to reading books nominated for prizes. So reading A tale for the time being by Ruth Ozeki has proved to be wonderful on several accounts. Firstly, it does suggest that I’m actually making more time for selecting library books and devouring them. Secondly, it’s a wonderful story. And thirdly (because things must come in threes), it’s got plenty of stationery in it. Stationery that is packed into a Hello Kitty lunch box, with a wristwatch, for good measure. All the best correspondence has extra bits in.
The story moves between Ruth, feeling isolated on a island in Canada, and the entries in the diary she finds washed up on the beach. Just to raise the stationery quota, there are also a bundle of letters in French, and a notebook filled with Japanese characters. Diaries being private things I’m always excited to get a glimpse into one, even if it is fictional. The diary writer is a Japanese teenager, Nao. Unable to talk to anyone else about her problems, she writes about them in a diary, imagining who will be reading them at some later point.
There are rather interesting explorations of the idea of letter writing. That it is a captured moment in time for a specific audience, generally of one. One of the difficulties Ruth faces when reading the diaries is what timings to apply to them. Should she attempt to read at the rate Nao wrote in order to appreciate Nao’s perspective?
There’s also some mischievous playing around with the meaning of texts. Ruth and her husband have different interpretations of the diary, and what is happening to Nao. But Ruth is lonely. Is she looking for something to become emotionally attached to ? Or perhaps it is that Nao is only writing for one person. The diary entries worry Ruth. But years have gone by since Nao wrote them. How personal and private a letter can be is one of the interesting questions raised. Letters and emails reveal several times that one person does not have the whole story. That they may even have gone to great lengths to ensure that their true feelings are only revealed to the right person.
All this makes for twists and turns in the plot which are highly enjoyable.
There are some delightful references to handwriting. From the purple gel pen, Nao writes with to the difficulty in translating handwritten letters.
“handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin”
And there’s a nice point about the trend for turning the covers of hardback books into notebooks. It’s picked up elsewhere in the use of words, written and printed, as a form of memory and longevity. If your words slip from the page (and in this novel anything is possible) would the world forget you?
I feel I should also mention the other things that turn up along the way: a Sky soldier, a Buddhist nun, Hugh Everett, quantum physics, cyberbullying, French maid cafes, words standing in for objects, and a Crow.
So plan a trip to another time and place in the very near future. Set aside an afternoon with a pot of tea for a spot of diary reading.