Friday, April 4, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)

It's actually sort of rare that I'm caught up with new literature, but in this case I'm on point.  A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki was one of the top reviewed books last year, read and still read in numerous book clubs, positively reviewed, made the semifinals of The Morning News Tournament of Books (http://www.themorningnews.org/tob/).  I used to say I wasn't a fan of modern fiction, but that has completely changed in the last year or so.  Actually, a more true statement would be "I used to say I wasn't a fan of fiction at all, outside genre fiction and children's literature, with some favorites thrown in (Forster comes to mind)."  That is really what has changed.  Maybe my branching out into classic fiction created a taste for good fiction overall.  Who knows.

A Tale for the Time Being reads easily but has so much depth.  It's a quick read, and I was almost instantly drawn into the lives of both narrators. Ozeki's book is about time (the title says it first), and she plays a bit with structure without the book becoming a confusing jumble - there is still an order here, like time itself, the book follows laws but bends them too.  The addition of a third character, the diary of Haruki, the Japanese soldier, bends this concept of time again.

Ozeki's use of the competing theories of what happens to Ruth in the last chapters - essentially magic (although it's never called that, I'm using that word) verses quantum mechanics was really quite brilliant and intriguing.  So if Ruth was able to travel through time, or Haruki #2 was able to manipulate time and space from another world - then what about the jungle crow?

Schrodinger's cat indeed.  At what point does a writer decide to combine quantum mechanics, multiple world theory, Japanese culture and history (both modern and early 20th century) folklore (Japanese, Salish), Canadian custom, small towns, art theory - and then mixes them all up in such a way that you get this beautiful story.  It's a definitely a wow.

Plot is important, but I think in a complicated story like this character is everything.  Without perfectly crafted characters, it would be a mess.

The idea that art is time travel was a concept new to me (I'm sure it's part of Proust, which I'm not going to read, and to which this book refers to continually); essentially that you are going back in time when consuming art, always to a time when whatever it is was being created, and that that the artist is talking to the future too, and that these exist simultaneously.  Like that cat.

If I related to anyone, it was probably Oliver - who has to live with a complicated person, and is a complicated person himself.  Ozeki's portrayal of their relationship, two people who are similar and dissimilar in important ways, really hit home for me.


A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Don't be lulled into thinking this is a lightweight book by how quickly you are pulled in and how easy and fun it is to read.  Ozeki plumbs the depths and breadth and width of the cultural and scientific concepts of time, with injections of the meaning of life and death and art along the way.  A chronologically complicated book like this is nothing without meaty, memorable characters, and Ozeki doesn't disappoint. Ruth and her teenage Japanese counterpoint Nao are strong, believable, intriguing and challenging; they are surrounded by equally solid and magnetic characters.  Jiko, the ancient Grandmother and Buddhist priest, is the lodestone of the story, the spiritual center, and she's one of the most interesting fictional characters I've discovered in a book in quite a while. Certainly one of the best books of 2013, and one of the best books I've read in quite some time.


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