In Ruth Ozeki's first two books, her protagonists were strong Japanese-American women, and on book tours, she was often asked if they were based on herself.
In her new novel, A Tale for the Time Being, Ozeki is just toying with us. You see, it's about a Japanese-American novelist named Ruth, who picks up what appears to be sea trash while walking on a beach in British Columbia.
She and her husband first suspect that the bundle is debris from the recent tsunami. As they peel away the barnacles, they find-- protected under several layers of plastic-- a Hello Kitty lunchbox that holds many items, including a copy of Proust's In Search of Lost Time in the original French. Ruth opens the volume, and is shocked to find a diary written with electric pink gel pen.
The diary was written by a young girl named Naoko Yasutani, or "Nao" for short. Born in Japan but raised in the states, Nao returns to Japan after her father loses his job in Silicon Valley. Even though she is Japanese, Nao is considered an outsider and is subjected to profound bullying. Both Nao and her father entertain suicide, so Nao is sent to live in a mountain temple with her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddist nun who she calls "old Jiko."
The chapters in A Tale for the Time Being alternate between Nao's diary and Ruth's life as she reads it, and Ozeki includes many footnotes explaining the bits of Japanese culture that appear in Nao's diary. The tale explores quantum physics, challenges concepts of time and space, and closely discerns the connection between reader and writer.
And even though she occasionally asks us to suspend disbelief, Ozeki's writing is so careful and tight that it's difficult to find fault.