You might choose to read Ruth Ozeki‘s latest novel as another engrossing, original story – because it clearly is. And if you decide to stick the novel in your ears, you’ll be thrilled and grateful to know that Ozeki herself reads to you – her recitation is crisp, measured, and exacting.
The novel’s dual protagonists take turns revealing the eponymous ‘tale’: Nao, short for Naoko, is a bullied Tokyo teenager dealing with her suicidal, unemployed father while whose closest confidante is her 104-year-old Buddhist nun great-grandmother; Ruth is a hapa Japanese American novelist living on a tiny island off the coast of Canada’s British Columbia. The two women are connected via the vast Pacific waters when a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing mementos of Nao’s life – including a journal retrofitted inside the cover of an aptly chosen Marcel Proust classic, À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrances of Things Past) – washes up on the island’s shoreline, quite possibly a vestige from Japan’s 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. [Note to self: Tale pubbed exactly two years and one day after the tragedy, and a full decade minus two days after Ozeki's last novel, All Over Creation.] While Ruth attempts to reconstruct Nao’s past from the lunchbox remnants, she also works desperately to find Nao’s present.
All that is reason enough to read the novel and be done. But I dare you NOT to keep thinking long after you reach that final cover. The names will surely keep you challenged: just for starters, might I mention Nao/now, ‘Naoko’ meaning honest child in Japanese and the ‘truth’ she writes or doesn’t write in a work of fiction, her last name Yasutani (which might mean ‘peaceful valley,’ the ironic opposite of Nao’s complicated young life) which also happens to be the name of renowned Zen Buddhist priest Yasutani Haku’un, not to mention the fictional and real-life Ruths, both with husbands named Oliver.
If the names don’t spark further interest about reliable narrators, notions of reality, the art of fiction, the cover could inspire further volumes. Allow me to share a couple of the multi-layers to consider. In the third line down of the story’s opening page is this description: “A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.” That explanation transforms the title into at least a double entendre, as in ‘a story for now,’ or ‘a story for Nao.’ Add the subtitle, “a novel,” and the author’s name, and you’ve grown a labyrinth of meanings, from ‘a novel story for now by Ruth,’ to ‘Ruth’s novel about Nao,’ and so much more.
I might quibble that by the final pages, a few of the narrative threads were a bit too ‘deus ex machina‘-ly resolved, but I also find myself insisting that sometimes endings just need to be happier than not. That sort of magical thinking perhaps doesn’t make for a perfect novel, but it’s a small price to pay for attempting to redeem humanity through the healing power of sharing words and telling stories.