Book Review: A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki
Posted on December 15, 2013
Publisher of this edition: Cannongate Books Ltd. (Edinburgh) 2013
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is beautiful beautiful. The sixteen-year-old protagonist, Nao, and her 104-year-old great-grandmother, Jiko, are the life’s blood of this wonderful book, but all of the characters are essential to the ensemble, which is one of the points of the book: the necessity of playing one’s part in the HERE and NOW of life. A Tale for the Time Being is funny and tender and sad and sweet and brimming with the compassion and hope one would expect from a Buddhist priest (which Ozeki is, which I only just learnt) without being sappy or sentimental.
Here’s a quote that I read in a book of poetry that came to mind as I was finishing the final chapters of this one:
“Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a lone sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you sit in the winter months to dine with your thanes and counselors. Inside there is a comforting fire to warm the room; outside, the wintry storms of snow and rain are raging. The sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the wintry storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the darkness whence he came. Similarly, man appears on earth for a little while, but we know nothing of what went before this life, and what follows.” Bede, A History of the English Church and People.
Of course, for many creatures, whether human or sparrow, the banquet hall represents fear and suffering, whilst the wintry storm beckons like a lover, by comparison. It has always been true that, whilst some enjoy lives of plentiful feasts, others serve as the meat of those feasts.
Ozeki explores several themes in this novel, and they are big themes. She uses both currently accepted scientific theories and highly-speculative, far-out ones to reflect upon Time and the Universe and Our Place in It. She asks what it means to be a fluttering, breathless creature trying to survive within the vast violent banquet hall, and whether it is possible to find grace and peace within the chaos — a safe resting place for sparrows in a world of sparrow-eaters.
Ozeki, through the lives and voices of Nao and Jiko and Harukis I and II, redefines what it means to be a hero with “superpowers” in a way that I found utterly charming and endearing, but also poignant and profound. She offers some answers, too, to the questions she poses, whilst acknowledging that not every question can or should be answered, that uncertainty is necessary to life. Advice for living is woven throughout the narrative, and it is all in keeping with a Buddhist world view, but offered simply and lovingly (so, it did not feel preachy to me). One message that reverberates loud and clear through the space-time continuum is this: that To Live is the duty of the living, and we must persist despite the harsh and unforgiving nature of reality, because HERE and NOW are all that we can claim as ours — at least for the time being.