Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Recommended? Yes!

Rating: 5/5

Who might like this? Fans of engaging literary fiction interested in exploring themes of Buddhism, trauma and even quantum mechanics! On one level it is an easy-to-read, well-paced novel with complex characters, but on a deeper level it makes you think so hard your brain might hurt a bit.

Ruth Ozeki is a name that has bounced about the edge of my consciousness for some time, hanging out but never taking centre stage. I’ve been meaning to read her books, but they never made it to the top of my pile. One of my great friends handed me her well-read copy of Ozeki’s 2013 Booker Prize finalist A Tale for the Time Being, and thus, obligated to read it, I picked it up just after Christmas. It’s that empty-feeling week between Christmas and New Years, the time when you take stock of the year just passed and look forward to the vastness of the next one. The time when you ask things like Who am I? Is all this meaningful? Does anything matter in our boundless universe? I’m exaggerating–mostly!–but for me it truly is a time for introspection. Ozeki’s novel is the perfect read for this time of year.

From the first page we are introduced to the concept of a time being, “someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

We meet Nao, a Japanese teen uprooted from her beloved life in California to live in poverty in Tokyo, bullied mercilessly at school and dealing with her father’s suicide attempts. She finds a notebook and wants to record her beloved great-grandmother and Buddhist nun Jiko’s life story, but instead finds herself recording her own tumultuous troubles. We also meet Ruth, a middle-aged Canadian-American of Japanese heritage who, years later, finds Nao’s journal in a waterproof Ziploc bag washed up on the beach of her remote British Columbia island home. Ruth is a creatively blocked writer, loosely based on the author herself, who becomes obsessed with Nao’s tale. She is a woman displaced, trying to find something solid to anchor to. Pulled between her longing for the orderly, populated streets of her native New York and the isolation of her remote island home, she feels restless.

Ruth and Nao’s stories interweave seamlessly, and as we progress, Ozeki introduces a lively host of supporting characters. Jiko is Nao’s great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun reported to be 104 years old, and the voice of wisdom, but she also has a deep, irreverent humour. Nao’s kamikaze pilot great-uncle Haruki is a ghostly voice from the past via his journal of brutal WWII experiences; and her father is compassionately written as a man who struggles with existential depression. Ruth’s partner Oliver is a great foil to her obsessiveness, and the cast of island characters is delightful. Indeed, Ozeki’s characters are deeply written and sympathetic.

This book packs a punch. Ozeki doesn’t shy away from the horrific pain of life and the trauma arising from suffering that results both from our choices, and events out of our control. I am a fledgling meditator and learning about Buddhist philosophy, so I was hooked by the Zen Buddhist principles in the book. Indeed, Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist nun. She hints at a roadmap for life’s suffering through Jiko’s Buddhism: that one can work towards freedom from suffering through meditation and living fully in each moment. However, for those of us unenlightened folks, the text doesn’t shy away from the messy humanness of living in a difficult world. Suffering is inevitable, and each character struggles with this in a different way. Both unimaginable brutalities and the banalities of daily life come to bear. Not for the faint-hearted, there is some difficult subject matter in these pages.

It all sounds very heavy, but I feel like most of us can relate in some way. What I loved about this novel was the ultimate message of hope. The tone is surprisingly optimistic. Despite the torture, stupidity, indignity and brutality of life, Ozeki suggests that some sense of liberation is possible through a lifetime of practice and struggle. Indeed, this is the inherent beauty of life, and the joy of it.

And then, just at the end, when you think it’s over, we are back to time beings. There’s quantum mechanics and weird musings about time, and this upending of who is who and what is what…It was trippy, and actually had a transcendent quality that made my brain kind of bend and expand.

Life can be tough. Our minds are so busy with the past and the future, and we can get mired in it. Waking up to the now, as a time being, is how we begin to break the spell. A Tale for the Time Being is a worthwhile place to start.

Favourite Quotes


On all sides, massive Douglas firs, red cedars, and big leaf maples surrounded them, dwarfing everything human. When Ruth first saw these giant trees, she wept. They rose up around her, ancient time beings, towering a hundred or two hundred feet overhead. At five feet, five inches, she had never felt so puny in all her life.
“We’re nothing,” she said, wiping her eyes. “We’re barely here at all.”


There was always this moment, leaving the safety of our apartment building and stepping out onto the street, when we kind of glanced at each other, then looked away. I’m pretty sure we were both feeling the same things–guilty about leaving Mom at home alone, and helpless about going out into a world we were unprepared for–that felt totally unreal…it was this doomed unreal feeling I remember more than anything else, like we were bad actors in terrible costumes in a play that was guaranteed to tank, but we had to go out on stage anyhow.


But here, on the sparsely populated island, human culture barely existed and then only as the thinnest veneer. Engulfed by the thorny roses and massive bamboo, she stared out the window and felt like she’d stepped into a malevolent fairy tale. She’d been bewitched. She’d pricked her finger and had fallen into a deep, comalike sleep…Maybe it was time for her to leave this place she’d hoped would be home forever. Maybe it was time to break the spell.


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