How often does it happen that the narrator’s great-uncle died in the same way as your own, sharing the same ideals? My great-uncle was a Sky Soldier (a Kamikaze pilot) too who was a pacifist at heart and was forced to die for his country just like Nao’s great-uncle, Hiroki #1 as she calls him. My great-uncle was a student of German studies and kept a German book with him until the very end. And like the secret diary Nao discovers, the book which contained his handwritten notes was salvaged later and returned to his sister in the 1970s. I only learnt about this last detail now asking my mother more about him, after reading Ozeki’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel “A Tale for the Time Being.”
For the past ten years, whenever anyone asked me whether I had a favourite book, I said Goethe’s Faust. That’s because at some point in time when I was perhaps eighteen that might have been true but mostly because I really didn’t have a favourite anymore. I could also never truly identify with a character in a novel nor share their cultural values. This all changed when I read “A Tale for the Time Being.”
Everything Ozeki writes about Japan is so true, so real (no matter how disturbing and unreal it may sound in a Westener’s eyes) and a reflection of contemporary Japan while incorporating the traditional values, all from the viewpoint of a true 帰国子女 (Japanese returnee students). I’ve never been bullied in the way Nao has been, nor did I have any other painful experiences but having lost my father at a young age, I once attempted to integrate into Japanese society as a high school student… And failed miserably. I loved the details, the stories within the stories (like the former soldier who donated money to save whales) and wondered which details were based on the author’s own life and which weren’t but that’s always the secret of a writer. In a way, I wish it would all be true because the world would be a wonderful place if it were so magical.
Summarizing the story, telling you Ruth in British Columbia discovers a lunchbox washed up on the shore that contains the diary of a 16-year-old suicidal girl, Nao Yasutani, living in Tokyo, and gradually gets sucked into her life, does this book no justice at all. Reading precisely this sort of plot summary is what put me off this book in the first place. What this story really does is effortlessly bend time and place, and in the process create a magical world, where everything is somehow connected and anything is possible. The reader becomes the writer, the reality fiction and vice versa.
I’m not religious nor do I believe in many things, but I do believe in some sort of destiny (like the one that brought my pet garden snails, my turtles and my dog into my life) where we’re all connected and can’t help but believe I was meant to read this book. I always had a totally unfounded negative bias towards English-writing Japanese authors and I would have never read this one if it wasn’t for Philip Palmer, who in one workshop on alternative worlds in my MA Creative Writing, couldn’t stop praising this book.
Do you feel like I’ve told you absolutely nothing at this point? Then, there’s only one thing I can tell you now: read this book.