This post is part of a weekly series in which Atlantic staffers offer their takes on the six novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
The chatter surrounding the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize has assigned each of the shortlisted writers a niche in the competition—except for Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale For the Time Being. Jim Crace has his swan song, Colm Tóibín has the thinnest book ever shortlisted, NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel is her debut, Eleanor Catton is the youngest author ever nominated, and Jhumpa Lahiri has a Pulitzer. But aside from brief mentions of Ozeki’s biography—she’s a filmmaker and an ordained Buddhist priest—the critics have left Ozeki the writer without a designated slot. How zen.
And how appropriate for Ozeki’s third novel, an unabashedly metafictional work that, she has said, was a real struggle to write. In fact, she inserts that struggle into the book, which has two main narrators: a 16-year-old Japanese girl named Nao, who keeps a diary, and a woman who inexplicably finds the journal in a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on a shore near her island home in western Canada. The woman, Ruth, is a thinly fictionalized version of Ozeki, and the diary, it seems, has floated all the way across the Pacific after Japan’s catastrophic 2011 tsunami. Ruth, stymied by work on her own memoir, becomes consumed with learning as much as she can about Nao.
Ozeki turns the novel into, in essence, an annotated commentary that radiates out from Nao’s alternately cheerful and angsty account of an unhappy adolescence. Ruth pursues many threads brought up in the diary, gathering the results of her research in the footnotes and appendices that are tacked onto Nao’s half of the novel. Sometimes the quest doesn’t take readers anywhere very interesting. Ozeki dwells too long, for instance, on Ruth’s failed Google searches for Nao and her family, and halfway through the book, I’d nearly had it with hearing about her cat’s sleeping habits.
But often Ruth’s forays carry her to unexpected places. As she looks into Nao’s family history, she learns of a great uncle, Haruki, who was conscripted during his college years into flying a kamikaze mission in World War II. Ozeki grants us a glimpse of his diary, as he grapples with his impending flight. “There is no use, no way of stopping time,” he writes, “and so I lie here, paralyzed.” Ozeki contrasts his powerlessness over passing time with the suicidal thoughts from Nao’s diary, where she struggles to feel grounded in the present moment; he resists his death, but she wants hers to come sooner. The novel’s references to suicide go on to reverberate in interesting ways—who would’ve thought you could draw a link between a teenage girl’s desperation and the catastrophe of 9/11, by way of kamikaze pilots, and pull it off?