I was immediately drawn to the premise of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being: an author on a remote Canadian island finds a diary that washed ashore as part of the debris from the Japanese tsunami of 2011. The diary belonged to a 16-year-old Japanese girl who wants to commit suicide to end the bullying and loneliness that consumes her life, but is compelled to first tell the story of her 104-year-old great-grandma who is a Buddhist nun and general badass. I know – great, right?!
But there were problems. For one, the book is plagues with footnotes. Sure, they helped explain a lot of the Japanese cultural references, but all of the footnotes – there were so many of them – bugged; certainly they detracted from the flow of the story. [I just finished Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick and it had the same problem. Is this a thing now and how do I stop it? It worked for Junot Diaz in Oscar Wao. I haven’t found another novel that could pull it off. So authors, just stop it.] I loved Jiko’s character (the badass great-grandma), but her story was told through Nao and her narrative voice was beyond annoying. I much preferred the story of Ruth, the author who finds the journal, but even Ruth’s sections started to drag as the story moved along, instead of building in intensity (which, ironically, Ozeki was able to do with Nao’s sections – only I didn’t like Nao any more for it).
There were passages that I really connected with in terms of the writing, but so many more that I wish had been culled. I thought if the book had been trimmed by about 100 pages, the story would be tighter and better for it. I loved the philosophical bend of the time-beings and time and stories and impermanence, but just as Ozeki really got going, she would let the plot interrupt. Tale could have been The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but fell just short. 2 of 5 stars.