March 13, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being

by Ruth Ozeki

A diary washes up on a beach in British Columbia. In Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, a Japanese-American Canadian novelist named Ruth finds the diary, wrapped in freezer bags and protected by a Hello Kitty lunchbox. In its pages, she finds a fascinating story of Nao, a suicidal Japanese schoolgirl, and her friendship with her great grandmother Jiko, a radical feminist Buddhist nun who was 104 years old and whose gentle, philosophical son died in a kamikaze attack on the American fleet.

This is a charming little story about growing up, and also about getting past writer’s block. There’s also more than a little reflection on the meaning of being Japanese: Ruth is an American nisei living in Canada, and Nao thinks of Sunnyvale, California as home and her life in Tokyo as an exile imposed by her parents’ failure. This is quite good. The book ends with a quantum-mechanically flavored coda that is less so, but even that is redeemed by the cat Pest — short for Pesto, which is itself an informal name because the cat’s proper name is Schrödinger.