If you were to ask a Japanese person who is neither a bird lover nor an ornithologist, he or she would probably tell you that the Jungle Crow is a nuisance. As a character explains in A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING, Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, these crows rip open garbage bags, eat kittens and use coat hangers to make nests on utility poles, which causes power outages. According to Japanese mythology, however, the Jungle Crow is a messenger of the gods. The inevitable clash of myth and reality is one of the themes of this novel, a challenging work that combines folklore, the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and, of all things, quantum physics and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat.
In the present day, a novelist named Ruth, who, like Ruth Ozeki, lives in British Columbia, discovers a plastic bag on the beach. The bag contains a Hello Kitty lunchbox with three items inside: a stack of handwritten letters, an antique wristwatch, and a diary, a “pudgy bound book with a faded red cover.” The handwriting in the diary is in purple gel ink --- the handwriting, Ruth assumes correctly, of a young girl.
"Ozeki deserves praise for tackling subjects few novelists ever would have broached. A 750-word review can’t do justice to the many big ideas and lovely moments in this book.... In an era when American novels rarely have the courage to address large themes, it’s a pleasure to read a book that dares to think big."
Nao, the young girl, is 16 when she writes the diary in 2001. On the first page, she tells us that we are reading “the diary of my last days on earth.” Nao grew up in Sunnyvale, California, but when her father gets laid off from his job as a games developer during the dot-com era, she moves to Japan with her family. The transition to Japanese life is difficult. Classmates make fun of her. She is the target of an especially cruel form of ijime (bullying), with classmates jabbing and punching her so hard that the attacks leave cuts and bruises all over her body.
When Nao’s jobless father isn’t feeding crows in the park, he resorts to off-track betting in a failed attempt to make money. Instead, he loses the family’s finances and tries to kill himself by jumping in front of a train. While her father recuperates, Nao is sent for the summer to the temple where Jiko, her 104-year-old great-grandmother, lives. The original plan is to chronicle Jiko’s life in her journal, but instead Nao writes mostly about school and family struggles and her desire to commit suicide.
Ruth is fascinated by Nao’s diary. A former New Yorker now living with her eco-artist husband, Oliver, on an island in Desolation Sound, Ruth is having trouble writing a memoir. She and Oliver wonder how the diary wound up on the shores of British Columbia. They suspect that the 2011 tsunami brought it across the Pacific. Ruth becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Nao and her family. As she conducts her investigations, she and Oliver notice the sudden appearances of a Jungle Crow they hadn’t seen before. Muriel, an anthropologist friend, speculates that this could be a Grandmother Crow --- a magical ancestor that can shape-shift and assume animal or human form. Ruth dismisses the suggestion, yet the crow becomes a more frequent presence as Ruth makes inquiries into Nao’s life.
At times, particularly in the first half of the book, A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING could have benefited from more editing. Simple activities that could be described in a few words go on for a paragraph or more. One wonders if Ozeki and her editor rushed to get the novel out in time for the second anniversary of the March 11, 2011 tsunami. And Ozeki occasionally strains for profundity, as when Oliver introduces the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat to explain the confluence of worlds and the quantum theory that everything that’s possible will one day happen.
But Ozeki deserves praise for tackling subjects few novelists ever would have broached. A 750-word review can’t do justice to the many big ideas and lovely moments in this book. There’s a beautiful scene in which Nao and her father watch the footage of the September 11th attacks. Later, in a harrowing episode at school, Nao is the victim of a prank that Ozeki describes in exquisite, if painful, detail. The conversations between Nao and Jiko are smart and moving. In an era when American novels rarely have the courage to address large themes, it’s a pleasure to read a book that dares to think big.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on March 15, 2013
A Tale for the Time Being